Year in Review: Books

Somehow I managed to do quite a bit of reading this year–in spite of being a grad student. The month of May helped tremendously–with a reduced work schedule and the kind of weather that made the deck an inviting place to sit and read. According to, I’ve finished 22 books so far this year (ahead of my 18 from last year). I’m hoping to push that number to 25, but I may or may not have the time to make that happen.

Anyhoo…..I thought I’d share my recommendations for books from what I read this year. Here goes, in no particular order.

1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

I must confess that I listened to this book–I thought it might make navigating all the Swedish names a little easier. I can’t be sure the publisher included a pronunciation guide. Besides, Simon Vance is a phenomenal reader for an audio book. He has a wonderful British accent (which makes any book easier to read, I think) and delineates the characters beautifully as he narrates. The plot itself–though not family friendly–truly is captivating and it’s hard to step away. Mikael Blomkvist is a once-respected independent journalist who drastically alters his life when his profession crumbles. Amid an offer from an old-school tycoon who can help clear Blomkvist’s name is a job requiring Blomkvist to find answers surrounding the disappearance of the tycoon’s family member who’s been gone nearly four decades. Blomkvist also begrudgingly enlists the help of one Lisbeth Salander, a misunderstood genius with a penchant for technology and body ink. If you learn nothing else about Lisbeth, it’s that you want to stay on her good side.

My vote: either pick it up and read it or download from Audible or iTunes and enjoy. The only regret is that Larsson is no longer alive to keep bringing us such complex and layered books that one simply cannot put down.

2. Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America by Helen Thorpe

I picked this up on a whim I think. I was looking for books that dealt with gender issues, and this one included some multi-culturalism, too. I just didn’t think I would get as sucked in as I did. As the title suggests, Thorpe follows 4 adolescent girls as they make their way through high school in the Denver area (which has a shockingly large number of Mexican immigrants). Two girls are here without documentation–having come across the border with their parents when they were children. Two girls are here with documentation. All four are bright and driven, with their own ideas about the shape of their futures. The problem is, when you’re undocumented, your future is limited. Thorpe balances the narratives of these four girls with the political issues at play in Denver, in Colorado and in the rest of the country. This book, in its sum total, also provides a rationale for why legislation such as the DREAM Act is important.

Just like us was a delightful surprise to read. It was eye-opening and infuriating to know that bright, driven young men and women who came to this country illegally as children (because they came with adults who made the decision to do so) have no means to citizenship or a productive future. It also gives a unique argument for immigration legislation that’s as fair as it can be.

3. Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale by Ian Morgan Cron

You may already know about this book because I read it as a reviewer. The adjective for the year (captivating) applies here as well. Megachurch pastor Chase Falcon has recently begun to question not only his faith but also his role as lead pastor in a large evangelical church where pat answers no longer suffice. The church leadership has suggested that Chase take some time off to get his head on straight. After a few days, Chase packs his bags and heads to Italy, off on a pilgrimage of chasing and learning from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. With the help of some easy-going and colorful friars, a church member who’s the mother of the child who recently died (prompting the shake-up of Chase’s faith), and the writings of Francis himself, Chase discovers more about himself and a new kind of faith–a faith that can take him home and sustain him–even as the church leadership–and a manipulating youth minister–make some decisions regarding Chase’s job.

If you’ve ever questioned your faith, been kicked around by church, been kicked out of or disgruntled by church or need a virtual pilgrimage to renew your own faith–and challenge you in ways you might never have expected–this book is worth reading…perhaps even more than once.

4. War by Sebastian Junger

I’ve chosen several books lately that give more insight into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This one and one other make the list for this year–but there are more on the shelf…so stay tuned.

Working as a mental health provider–and potentially doing an internship in a counseling center that services the military (among others), I thought getting some more insight into the war in Afghanistan would be helpful. Even if the same is not true for you, this book delivers–in many different ways. Junger goes on the ground with a platoon of the 173rd Airborne brigade in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley–the hottest region in the war. He proves to us that war is, indeed, hell, but that it’s also captivating to many who choose to fight. Junger tells the stories of these men–and his experiences with them–and gives the reader a glimpse into the psyche of a soldier in combat–and why it’s so hard to leave the Valley and return home to their mundane lives stateside. It’s also not hard to understand why so many soldiers return with PTSD. Living in a corner of hell while constantly having to be hypervigilant–because you never know when the insurgents will start firing–is enough to make the sanest man crazy after a time. If you want to know more about what it’s like for our troops in Afghanistan, pick this one up and read it. You won’t regret it.

5. Unhooked by Laura Sessions Stepp

I put this one in the stack with my gender reading that I started this summer. If you’ve been a college student–or spent time with women who are–in the past 10 years, you are probably well aware of the culture of “hooking up” that is so prevalent among adolescents everywhere. Hooking up is a loose phrase that encompasses anything from making out with the guy or girl you just met at the bar or frat party to heading home for a one-night stand–or friends with benefits. The problem is, sex is more than a physical act–and engaging in sexual activity on a whim actually influences the nature of romantic relationships experienced by this age group–and not necessarily for the better.

Stepp follows several girls–both in high school and in college (some at nearby Duke U.)–as they experience this culture of hooking up and what it means for them as young women and as young women seeking a long term relationship some day. If you work with young women or have a daughter, this book is a MUST read. And hopefully it will provide more insight than it does freak you out.

6. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men by Michael Kimmel

Just as Unhooked gave insight into at least a portion of the world of adolescent girls, Guyland goes one better and runs the gamut for adolescent boys. Starting with a definition of the Guy Code (including the infamous Bros before Hos), Kimmel runs the gamut of boys in high school, hazing rituals, binge drinking, sports, pornography, hooking up and even predatory sex/party rape. For those of you who are men who have navigated this part of your lives, you will probably not be at all surprised at what you find here. For those of you who are women, it’s an eye-opening description of what it means for young men to come of age here and now. It’s a complement to Unhooked and other books about young women, and this and Unhooked should probably be read in tandem. The two provide a lot of insight about each gender and the ways we can help them come of age–and relate to the other–in a way that is healthy. Again, if you work with adolescent boys in any capacity, if you parent one, if you have a daughter who’s interested in one, READ THIS BOOK.

7. The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins

I picked this one partly for professional reasons. It resonated for personal ones. Robbins–as per her style–follows and shares the stories of several high school students working to get into college (and some once they’re there). It’s shocking what parents will do to and for their children to ensure they have the option to attend the best colleges. It’s  not so shocking (because I watched it in my own high school) what students themselves will do to make themselves the most attractive candidates. Peppered with facts, figures, and some commentary on test scores, college rankings, AP classes and parental pressure, The Overachievers delivers a compelling story and argument for re-evaluating the emphasis on becoming the best and the brightest. Because in the end, it seems that much of what these kids do is never, ever enough.

8. Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos

The Apostle Peter punches Jesus in the face and then runs out of a coffee shop. And that’s just the first few pages. It’s the “not quite true” story of Mikalatos himself as he interacts with–and sometimes chases–various Jesuses, in a quest for a more meaningful relationship with the living, historical Jesus of Nazareth. Meanwhile, the reader gets to meet a talking donkey, Magic 8 Ball Jesus, Harley Jesus and Liberal Social Services Jesus–among others. It’s at times irreverent and probably not as gutsy as it could be. It’s funny and poignant and thought-provoking in a unique way, calling the reader to consider one’s own version of Jesus–and how that manifestation makes us comfortable (or not) with the faith life we have–as well as the faith life we could have if we’d only dispense with our imaginary Jesuses.

9. Sniper One: On Scope and Under Siege with a Sniper Team in Iraq by Dan Mills

This one was also on that list of books about Iraq and Afghanistan. Sniper One actually follows a British unit stuck with the not so easy task of policing al-Amarah–the center of support for Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. It was supposed to be a peacekeeping mission. It turned into full on combat. Mills eloquently describes what it’s like to work as a sniper team and how different troops deal with their job. Sniper One is another look into the psyche of troops living in a place that seems to never be at peace–but loving their job all the while. Sprinkled with the irreverent humor of snipers and combat troops, and describing military operations in which you want to stand up and cheer when the “enemy” takes a hit, this book proves that, even in November of 2003, this war was far from over.

10. The Mark of the Assassin by Daniel Silva

I became interested in Daniel Silva when I read the plot summary for Moscow Rules, which centers on the spy Gabriel Allon. But I like to go in order when there’s a specific protagonist, so I started at the beginning of Silva’s work (The Unlikely Spy–nothing to do with Allon but still a great book about WWII spies). This was his second published work and was just as thrilling as the first one. Here, CIA agent Michael Osborne attempts to locate the terrorists who shot down an airliner of the coast of Long Island. The problem is, there’s an assassin on the loose who has Osborne on his list…and a love story at the center as Osborne tries to reconcile his past with his present…and his wife. This book takes you all over the world with stops in Cairo, Amsterdam, London and DC. It’s a great romp that keeps you hooked from the beginning and doesn’t let go. I can’t wait to read the next one.

Honorable mention:

Literacy and Longing in LA by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack

It’s an honorable mention because I’m only half-way through it…but I have enjoyed feasting on this brilliant piece of chicklit. Twice divorced, former reporter 35 year old Dora is depressed, leaving her house only to stalk her former second husband and buy books. Some people drink. Some people shop. Some people binge eat. Dora goes on book binders, sequestered in her apartment amid stacks of books she’s reading–or re-reading. On one of her trips to the bookstore, Dora meets and begins a courtship with Fred, one of the employees. Although I’m not there yet, it seems like it might not be so much her relationship with Fred as with his mother that saves her in the end.

Paragraph of the book so far:

“I collect new books the same way my girlfriends buy designer handbags. Sometimes, I just like to know I have them and actually reading them is beside the point. Not that I don’t eventually end up reading them one by one. I do. But the mere act of buying them makes me happy–the world is more promising, more fulfilling. It’s hard to explain, but I feel, somehow, more optimistic. The whole act just cheers me up.”

I get that. And if you are a bibliophile, you do, too.

Happy reading and stay tuned for my list for next year…which will likely include books from this year because I certainly didn’t get to all of them.


Year End Book Review

Well…maybe not a review per se. But I wanted to share with you the books I DID read this year–in between the countless articles for school. Admittedly, some of what’s on the list was for school in some way, but here goes:

The Cider House Rules–John Irving

I love this man’s writing, and Cider House didn’t disappoint. It was yet another Irving book with memorable characters dealing with difficult issues–including grief.

Such a Pretty Fat–Jenn Lancaster

You may know of her from Bitter is the New Black and other writings. This book made me LAUGH out loud. It chronicles her decision to begin losing weight and the many experiences along the way. Jenn is witty and sarcastic, so her writing was perfect for me–and I understood the weight loss process, so I completely appreciated her take on life.

The next few came about as I worked on a project on eating disorders for a class on psychological disorders. In some way, each on helps the reader have a better picture of what it’s like to have an eating disorder and how it’s dealt with in different ways–or it’s about learning to love the body you have, in spite of what messages we receive about how we ought to look:

Thin is the New Happy–Valerie Frankel

Half-Assed: A Weight Loss Memoir–Jennette Fulda

Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia–Marya Hornbacher (by far the most graphic)

Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self–Lori Gottlieb (probably the best on eating disorders for getting inside the person’s psyche)

Feed Me! Writers Dish about Food, Eating, Weight, and Body Image–Harriet Brown

Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty and Body Image–Ophira Edut (reminiscent of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth…but way better)

In the world of theology (now that I’m not in div school, I don’t mind reading about theology in my spare time), there were a few gems this year:

Rapture Ready: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture–Daniel Radosh

This book was hilarious and scary all at the same time. It was a Jewish journalists view (and a pretty even-handed view) of Christian Pop Culture. Admittedly, he did the Family Christian/Lifeway store thing and then he went to Christian pop culture on steroids. You’d be amazed at what’s out there, people. Hence, the scariness. In all, though, very enlightening and humorous.

Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope–Brian MacLaren

I read this with a group of people and each time we met the question remained the same: So what do we DO? We KNOW everything must change. What now?

And each time we came away with the same answer: Love God and love people.

This book does give the reader plenty of food for thought on things such as war, the environment, and other hot topics that are very relevant for all of us today.

Speaking of relevant: Food Inc.–Karl Weber

I haven’t seen the documentary for fear it really will make me a vegetarian…or all out vegan. However, the book will give you LOTS to think about…and may change the way you eat–or at least shop for food. Its contributors include familiar names such as Eric Schlosser of Fast Food Nation fame and Michael Pollack (Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food) among others.

And just to keep up with some current events that stem from–you guessed it–thirty years of history (and religion):Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi. If you love to read–and enjoy not only the freedom to read what you like, reading good literature or living in a democracy–this is a good one. Life in Iran is not for the faint of heart.

More current events…well…in light of the most recent school board election in Wake County, this could all get turned on its head…but I read it before all that nonsense occurred: Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh–Gerald Grant.

I’ll leave it at that, lest I start my rant on the Wake County School Board.

And finally, some fiction that was just fun to read:

The Accidental Mother–Rowan Coleman

The Fourth Hand–John Irving (great for you Packers fans, too)

The Unlikely Spy–Daniel Silva (a great WWII spy romp reminiscent of John Lecarre and Frederick Forsyth–go read it now)

And last but not least, Cyclops by Clive Cussler. If you aren’t familiar with Dirk Pitt, you should be.

And there’ll be more to come, now that the semester is over and I have more time…well…until the new year starts. Then you’ll have to wait a year to read all about what I’ve been reading 🙂