Happy New Year! It feels like it was both so recently and so long ago that I wrote up my list of favorite reads from the first half of 2020. Going forward, I think I’ll write one of these entries quarterly, if only for the fact that it’s easier to summon thoughts about something I read three months ago, rather than six.
S.A. Cosby, Blacktop Wasteland —— When I wrote the previous “favorite reads” list, I was in the middle of reading this southern noir and so badly wanted to include it. This novel has all the elements of a page-turning crime thriller while also grappling with themes of race, class, and family. Cosby’s a Virginia native, and his home state also provides the setting for the novel. It was the perfect book for my first full summer living in my new home state.
Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom —— This short book also made it onto my list of suggested reading for new and recovering Christians. It’s a brief but profound guide on communing with God, and understanding how the love of God frees us from the falsehoods we believe about ourselves.
Zadie Smith, Intimations —— A collection of short essays/meditations written during the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to drop what they were doing.
John Scalzi, The Last Emperox —— A stellar conclusion to Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy.
Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread with the Dead —— I really admire Jacobs, and enjoy almost anything he writes. This book, a guide to developing a tranquil mind through encountering the past, was no exception. Look for a forthcoming piece over at Mockingbird, putting Jacobs’ book in conversation with Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black, which is also featured on this list.
Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips, Pulp —— Another graphic novel(la) from Brubaker and Phillips, this one about an aging pulp writer in America during the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. I really like this straight-to-hardcover approach they’re taking, publishing entire stories at once. It allows creators to experiment with stories that don’t lend themselves to the serialized format that’s the current standard for comics.
Bob Dylan, Chronicles Vol. 1 —— Bob Dylan’s memoirs were really interesting to me. They provided such an intimate portrait of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in the 50s and 60s, and made a legendary place and the people associated with it feel very approachable, even mundane.
Christopher L. Heuertz, The Sacred Enneagram —— Jenoa and I took an Enneagram test during premarital counseling a few years ago. I was initially skeptical of the whole thing, but over the years have found its descriptions of motivations and behaviors to be pretty reliable. Heurtz’s book helped me deepen my understanding of the Enneagram as a tool for better understanding people.
Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black —— Also on my list of suggested reading for new and recovering Christians, McCaulley’s book is easily one of my top favorites from all of 2020. McCaulley introduces readers to “Black ecclesial interpretation” of scripture, a little-understood and often neglected hermeneutical tradition. Although a scholar himself, McCaulley’s book is primarily written for laypeople, and he draws heavily on his own experiences struggling with both scripture and the injustices that acutely afflict African Americans. As I mentioned earlier, I recently wrote something putting McCaulley’s book in conversation with Alan Jacobs’ Breaking Bread with the Dead, so be on the lookout for that.
Matthew Crawford, Why We Drive —— This book radically changed my thoughts on self-driving cars, and driving in general. A medley of philosophy, memoir, and journalism, Crawford’s book grapples with and calls on readers to resist the increasing bureaucratic administration and streamlining of our lives by both corporations and government. A really original, thought-provoking, and surprisingly fun piece of political writing that does not adhere to any of our current partisan pieties.
Marilynne Robinson, Jack —— Jack is the most recent entry in Marilynne Robinson’s series of books that began with Gilead. The novel’s protagonist is an enigma to himself, and forces the reader to reflect on matters of free will and spiritual determinism (predestination!) in a way that, in the end, summons us to both sober self-assessment and compassion. I really enjoyed learning this character’s backstory, and the novel deepened my appreciation for Robinson as a writer.
Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park —— I needed a really potent distraction during the month of November, so a book about dinosaurs hunting humans on account of scientific hubris fit the bill. I had read this probably ten years ago, but enjoyed it this time even more than I remembered. The book differs from the movie in some significant ways, enough that it will feel fresh even if you’ve just watched Spielberg’s adaptation.
John Bellairs, The Letter, The Witch, and The Ring —— Although it’s the third book in a series and I hadn’t read the first two, Bellairs’ novel for young readers was still great fun. Road trips, old houses, magic, and coming of age.
Michael Jecks, The Last Templar —— A medieval murder mystery set in an English village in the early 14th century that deals with the trial and extermination of the Knights Templar.
trans. J.R.R. Tolkien, Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo —— I read Sir Gawain for an English lit class in college, and remember enjoying it. After talking about it with some friends recently, I decided to re-read it for Christmas, this time with Tolkien’s translation. It was a pleasure to read, as were the other poems, “Pearl” and “Sir Orfeo”.
trans. Maria Dahvana Headley, Beowulf —— The last book I read on 2020, finishing it on New Year’s Eve, might also have been my favorite. Dahvana’s feminist translation humanizes the characters of Beowulf. Her translation employs contemporary idiom, slang, and profanity in a weird alchemy that almost seems to unite the psyches of the poem’s readers and subjects. My friend Kendall wrote up some great thoughts on Headley’s translation that you should check out if you’re not already convinced to pick it up.