14 Books for 2014

A new year means new resolutions. Hopefully one of those for you was reading more…much, much much more. Well in order to kickstart that goal and save you time cruising reading reviews and spending more time with your nose in a book, here’s a list of 14 books that should absolutely be on your reading list for 2014:

Prayer Journals; Flannery O’Connor

Nonfiction; Spiritual

My wonderful fiance got me this short collection for Christmas. Even after two months of anticipation it didn’t dissapoint. Reading O’Connor’s intimate musings between her and the Divine is a treasured experience, one that challenges the reader to look into the mirror of their own souls a prayer journal for flanner o connorand reflect. Since it’s only fifty or so pages there really is no excuse to for not reading this book. Plus she’s Catholic and we could all use a little more of that in our lives:

“Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story–just like the typewriter was mine.”

For The Time Being; Annie Dillard

Nonfiction, Mind-blowing

For The Time Being

I picked this up during finals week to get a break from things and it really made my brain hurt. In this book, Annie Dillard explores the concepts of time across the ages…or at least I think that’s what she’s getting at. I haven’t finished the book yet. So join me in this one. It’s on my list for 2014:

“There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: A people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time– or even knew selflessness or courage or literature– but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.” 

Notes From A Bottle Found On The Beach At Carmel; Evan S. Connell

Poetry

notes from a bottle

After picking up Annie Dillard during finals week and realizing that was too mind-blowing, I decided to try Evan Connell (Dillard’s book opens with a quote from Connell). Seeing as it was poetry I figured it’d be a nice and relaxing break because poetry really easy to comprehend, right? Uh…wrong.

Connell’s poetry carries the intellectual weight of Dillard’s prose only in half the words. Each sentence requires whipping out the highlighter and feels like a diagnosis of one’s own soul. It’s deep, though provoking and reflective but needs to be taken like a good Scotch, slowly, by a fire and with plenty of time to digest:

“The Eskimo has twenty words

to express the conditions of snow.

The Tokelau Islander

has nine words for the ripeness of coconut.

I have not one word

to express my longing.

Da amantem et sentit quod dico; only another lover,

with love like mine, could understand.”

A Short History Of Nearly Everything; Bill Bryson

Nonfiction, Science

For those of us who quit studying science with high school physics and when they hear “big bang theory” instantly think of the TV show, Bill Bryson has come to the rescue. Bryson one of the best-selling non-fiction authors in all of British history. He is witty and brilliant a rare history everythingcombination. He can discuss scientific theory, evolution and black holes as if he’s discussing the party he was at the night before. A great read to impress anyone at a cocktail party…or just understand from whence you came. And he’ll always make you laugh:

“In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one’s face.” 

A Prayer For Owen Meany; John Irving

Fiction

A classic Irving novel set in the foothills of New Hampshire about a raspy-voiced boy and his impeccably normal companion. The reader learns early on the Owen Meany died, though they are kept in the dark as to how exactly, and a plot unfolds on the premise that the main character believes in God because of his friendship with Owen Meany. a prayer for owen meanyUltimately it is a story of doubt, friendship, loss, and faith. An interesting read and a funny read to say the least. But when you finish, tell me what you think of the ending.

“I have learned that the consequences of our past actions are always interesting; I have learned to view the present with a forward-looking eye.”

Surprised by Hope

Nonfiction, Theology

From one of the most influential authors in theology today comes the groundbreaking book on eschatology and life after death. This book truly changed my perspective on life (and I promise I don’t say that lightly). In it Wright examines our modern perspectives on heaven and life after death and how they differ from the orthodox and scriptural basis of ages past. This isn’t something that affects just the end of our life but also our view on the environment, social justice, politics…everything.surprised-by-hope-by-nt-wright-d2a631ba6c5d2575

I’m not doing it justice here, but really…it’s mind-blowing. It’s not the lightest book in the world but totally worth it. Take a few months to work your way through it and you won’t be disappointed.

“What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”

East of Eden

Fiction

It’s been years since I’ve read this book so I plan on re-reading it this year. It’s a monstrous work by Steinbeck that tells the story of two family’s intertwining lives. Since I can’t remember much of it, I won’t try and scrape the barrel of my memory and tell you much. You should just join me in reading it this year. One thing I do remember, quite vividly in east of edenfact, is that Steinbeck knew some Hebrew, which, I mean…c’mon, that’s just awesome:

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.” 

Where Men Win Glory; Jon Krakauer

Nonfiction, Military/Biography

In 2014 we will enter another year of conflict in Afghanistan. I was in 8th grade when the war began. In this book, renowned journalist Jon Krakauer explores not only the history behind the conflict in revealing detail but also the details in one of the most publicized events in the early where men win glorydays of the war: the death of Pat Tillman, former professional football player and Army Ranger. Krakauer’s work is thorough and insightful and an important means of considering the conflict overseas as well as our nation’s foreign policy.

“…the sad end he (Tillman) met in Afghanistan was more accurately a function of his stubborn idealism–his insistence on trying to do the right thing. In which case it wasn’t a tragic flaw that brought Tillman down, but a tragic virtue.” 

Home; Marilynne Robinson

Fiction

It’s been said that you can’t go home and in her sequel the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead, Robinson addresses that concept. The novel follows Ruth, the daughter of an elderly preacher whose health is failing and whose vagabond son seems to cause no end of trouble and homeconcern for his dying father. Ruth returns home to take care of her father and try to mend a broken relationship with her brother, the prodigal son who seems to be predestined to be stained by his own sin. The novel is enticing and heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time, typical for Marilynne Robinson. It’s a must read.

“I think hope is the worst thing in the world. I really do. It makes a fool of you while it lasts. And then when it’s gone, it’s like there’s nothing left of you at all . . . except what you can’t be rid of.” 

Flight Behavior; Barbara Kingsolver

Fiction, Environmental

I’m currently finishing up this novel, so I won’t tell you how this ends. Kingsolver is a skilled storyteller with a knack for twisting morals where you’d least expect them. While this can be somewhat annoying it is also convicting; funny how often those go hand in hand. This book tells the flight-behavior-pb_custom-404897bd119c14cb100aafa80924515b2b753a28-s6-c30story of Dellarobia, a down-on-her-luck woman living in the hills of southern appalachia who encounters a massive colony of butterflies living in the mountains of her family’s farm. When it turns out they’re there for reasons much bigger than she could have imagined she finds herself in the midst of a scientific endeavor that brings her into a world that-oops…I’m giving it away. Read it for yourself:

“Humans are in love with the idea of our persisting…we fetishize it, really. Our retirement funds, our genealogies. Our so-called ideas for the ages.” 

Telling the Truth; Frederick Buechner

Nonfiction, Theology

Buechner was a Princeton graduate who wrote novels, taught writing and was an ordained minister. He’s basically everything I wanted to be in life. This is a great book for anyone interested in understanding writing, fiction, the gospel and life. So it’s a great book for you. In the book, Buechner explores how the gospel presents itself as tragedy, comedy telling the truthand fairy-tale- each a separate but intertwined version and necessary way of perceiving the gospel.

“God is the comic shepherd who gets more of a kick out of that one lost sheep once he finds it again than out of the ninety and nine who had the good sense not to get lost in the first place. God is the eccentric host who, when the country-club crowd all turned out to have other things more important to do that come live it up with him, goes out into the skid rows and soup kitchens and charity wards and brings home a freak show. The man with no legs who sells shoelaces at the corner. The old woman in the moth-eaten fur coat who makes her daily rounds of the garbage cans. The old wino with his pint in a brown paper bag. The pusher, the whore, the village idiot who stands at the blinker light waving his hand as the cars go by. They are seated at the damask-laid table in the great hall. The candles are all lit and the champagne glasses filled. At a sign from the host, the musicians in their gallery strike up ‘Amazing Grace.'”

The Brothers K; David James Duncan

Fiction

An excellent novel from a very underrated writer. This story explores the saga of a family during the sixties, focusing on the plight between a husband and wife and the strained relationship between three brothers living in rural Washington. The father was a young baseball prodigy, whose career was crippled when his thumb was crushed in a milling accident and the mother is a dedicated Seventh Day Adventist who rules the brothers kher household with a a fierce faith. It explores the strain of faith, the essence of doubt and the struggle to perceive the way to live in a world that seems to be falling apart around a family that has enough crap of its own to deal with. In the words of a friend of mine after she finished the book: “I feel like I want to laugh, cry, sing and dance all at the same time”.

“Anyone too undisciplined, too self-righteous or too self-centered to live in the world as it is has a tendency to idealize a world which ought to be. But no matter what political or religious direction such idealists choose, their visions always share one telling characteristic: in their utopias, heavens or brave new worlds, their greatest personal weakness suddenly appears to be a strength.”

The Man Who Was Thursday; GK Chesterton

Fiction, Mystery

I’ve been referring to this book for the past month to everyone in my office and no one caught the reference. So I threatened to fire everyone. Seeing as I’m the youngest member of the building this just resulted in the man who was thursdayme being sent to my desk with a lot of filing. But this is one of Chesterton’s greatest works; a mystery novel that will keep you intrigued and has great parallels to the spiritual life. A good short beach read, too (if you ask me).

“Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front–” 

The 13th Tale; Diana Sutterfield

Fiction, Mystery

Okay. Confession. I haven’t read this book in about seven years. But I remember it being really really good. So it’s on my list to re-read it in the next year.13

“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.” 

All My Roads Blog

Internet Sensation, Shameless Plug

“Wait a minute,” say you, “A) That’s a blog, not a book. 2) That’s fifteen, can’t you count? and D) Doncha find this a bit narcissistic?”

In response to all of these I say:

I’m a writer…what’d you expect?

Anyways, I hope you’ll join me in this list. Happy reading and happy new year!

On Being A Better Person

Ten days ago the ball dropped in Times Square and millions of people across America raised their glasses to celebrate the occasion of successfully surviving another year, despite Mayan prophecies.

 2012

Friends hugged, drunken buddies sang out “Auld Lang Syne” (though, due to their less-than-sober state, forgot most of the words and reverted to “Starships” my Nikki Minaj instead) and couples exchanged brief, self-conscious, sparkled with champagne kisses. Somewhere out there, I’m sure there was an ex-English major hiccupping his way through some cheap wine and telling everyone around him  “Eye juz wuuuuvvvvv yeeewwweeeee”…but I honestly have no idea who that may have been. The point is, 2012 had ended and 2013 had begun.

Amidst this celebration, many of us cheerful hiccupping idiots resolved to make changes. This is an aspect of our western culture that is almost entirely universal. We see the New Year as a new chapter, a beginning to a new me that’s skinnier, nicer, happier, has finally stopped reading useless blogs online (allmyroads.com what a black hole) and also has a much sexier eHarmony profile. In doing so, for a brief moment every New Year’s Eve…most of our country acts like they’re Christian. This is because, simply put, unless you’re a Christian, the entire idea of a resolution makes absolutely no sense.

 wut?

 A resolution is the proclamation that who I am as a person can become better and I’m determined to see it happen. It’s the promise to myself that I, as an existing, real, present entity will become a better version of myself. Such a notion is unique to homo sapiens within the animal kingdom; animals are driven by a desire to survive; not improve themselves. There is no evidence to lead us to believe that a bear has any desire to improve itself into being a better bear.

Of course, it can be argued that the human drive to improve is just a complex, evolved means of survival. Therefore I want to eat less McDonald’s so I can live longer, stop dumping my dog’s waste in Bob-the-annoying-neighbor’s mailbox to increase my chances of him not running me over with his Civic and look more like Brad Pitt so I can have more sex and thus pass on my genes. Resolutions such as these could be whittled down to acts of survival. But such a generalization would exclude desired improvements like learning a new language, spending more time with family, helping others and many other common New Years goals. If human beings were driven simply by a will to survive, we wouldn’t find within ourselves a desire to improve the very nature of our personhood.

resolutionsTherefore a resolution requires the belief in both the existence of personhood and (hinging upon the first) the idea that this personhood can be eternally better (ie not just a evolutionary tweak). Most major world religions will hold a belief in the possibility of one or the other, but only Christianity agrees on both. Judaism, for instance, believes in the existence of a person…but amidst a sacrificial system that has yet to meet their messiah that person will always be marred with sin and in need of yet another sacrifice. We cannot be better because we have not been redeemed, and this will be true until our messiah comes.

“Oh! Oh! Oh! Let’s try Hinduism!”

Hindus discarded the idea of personhood being anything that exists beyond this lifetime (thus, making the idea of our personhood being eternally better a moot one) and instead resort to the concept of reincarnation. Our personhood is only valuable in the sense that it may improve our next life…in which case it’s really of not value at all.

“Whew! Good thing I’m an atheist…”

Au contraire. Atheism denies the idea of objective goodness. We cannot objectively improve ourselves if there is no objective standard.

“How ’bout dem Mormons?”

If I’m Mormon, my resolution to be a better person is not to be a better person, but to be a better developing demi-god that will come to fruition in the next life. Thus I don’t drink coffee or margaritas and instead wear a nice suit, go on my two-year mission and make snazzy commercials that annoy the bejeebers out of everyone that’s trying to watch their favorite Nicki Minaj video on YouTube. This isn’t to improve my person…because my personhood will one day be discarded en route to my godliness…unless I’m a woman.

what?

Oh. Okay Joseph!
Oh, Okay, Joseph!

Contrary to these, Christianity is the only major religion in which a resolution to better our personhood makes any sense. Our theology is rooted in the belief that we were created as eternal human beings, an existence in which we currently reside. We were not created as humans now only to become angels or gods later, nor we were created as gods now that are evolving but stuck in human bodies. We were not created as souls that have to put up with flabby stomachs, headaches and awkward teenage hormonal stages only to be liberated when we finally die and shed our wrinkled body en route to some home in the sky….we were created as and are eternal human beings.

Lest we allow ourselves to believe that heaven be boring as hell.
Lest we allow ourselves to believe that heaven be boring as hell.

But just as important to this thinking-nay- of greater importance, is our comprehension that while we do have personhood and that personhood does exist (in it’s entirety) beyond our present physical world, our personhood also could be better. Not only could we be better, Christianity proclaims, but we are screaming to be better. Every inch of our morsel is groaning for a chance to be better, for a need to improve. Our personhood is fallen, tainted by sin and scarred with pride but not to the point that it has forgotten that it’s not meant to be this way. This is why, every time we look in the mirror, we know there’s something about us that’s lacking. Granted, many of our self-perceived flaws are superficial: a bowl where our six pack should be, hair that doesn’t seem to stay combed, a zit that always appears right on the tip of our nose around Christmas time prompting one to permanently earn the nickname “Rudolph” (totally hypothetical mind you)…these are all superficial imperfections, but like the flower of a weed that shows itself above ground, we know these imperfections run much deeper than our skin. Every imperfection we can see is a testimony to a deeper imperfection whose root has hold on our soul.

funny-new-years-resolutions-card

 And so humans must, at some point in their life, face the reality that they can be better. This reality, Christianity will claim, is the reality of sin that keeps us from our fulfilled state in the presence of our Creator. It is prevalent and it cannot be overlooked. It demands a solution; it demands that a resolution be made to bring about the fulfillment of our personhood. Such resolution was made and in the form of Christ on the cross. This sacrifice is the only thing that makes it possible for us to reach our fulfillment as humans, for us to become better. Our resolutions only make sense if they are grounded in the theology of who we are in relation to Christ’s redemptive plan.

On New Years Eve, I raised my glass in a toast and I resolved to be a better person. I resolved to do so because I believe that my personhood is eternal and I believe that it is in dire and increasingly great need of being better (i.e. redeemed). In raising my glass and seeking to make a change, I declared my belief in the grace of Christ, my utter need for that grace and the resolution to walk in that grace every day of the upcoming year.

This is, in fact, the only resolution that makes sense.

Hahahahaha but really.
Hahahahaha but really.