January 2, 2021

My annual book review is slim pickings this time around, folks. Compared to the other difficulties and losses 2020 had on offer, my gaunt-looking reading list isn’t likely to stir the emotions, but it is one of the many byproducts of a year that went wildly not according to plan. In 2018 I read 42 books, last year was around 30, and this year I read….I don’t know, maybe ten? Plus a few more that I started and didn’t finish, which we’ll be generous and lump together for a grand total of a dozen books.

Some of those books I don’t even remember reading now. I just checked my Goodreads account and saw that I read a book called Where the Forest Meets the Stars (by Glendy Vanderah) back in January — before covid and quarantine and the loss of my dad — and I was like “Ohhhhh, yeah…..” I have a vague sense that it was about a botanist or something, and there was an odd little girl in it, and I think a romance too? Goodreads also reminded me that I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, which, in typical Neil Gaiman fashion, was strange and mildly creepy and I didn’t really get it but I kinda liked it anyway, and all I can remember about it now is that there was a house of sorceress-type women, and strange things happen when they’re around, and a little boy comes along and mucks things up a bit and they all have to work together to fix it, and “working together” includes sort-of-but-not-really drowning in a pond that’s actually an ocean. At least I think that’s what happened.

I was given a lot of books on suffering and grief this year, and I read snippets of those and appreciated them very much, although I’ve discovered that it’s hard to read about other people’s grief while experiencing one’s own. Still, those books (and the sweet notes that often accompanied them) were good for my heart.

And speaking of being good for my heart, I read the entire Bible this year. I had done that before, but this time around I listened to it. So did Todd and our older two boys, at the encouragement of my father-in-law, who promised to treat them to a steak dinner if they accomplished it. It may be mercenary, but it did the trick. Four out of six of us now have words in our brains, truth in our hearts, and — soon — steak in our bellies.

Due to the haphazard nature of my reading this year, I’m writing a haphazard End Of Year Book Review as well. It’s gonna be short. It won’t include everything I read. And, much like 2020 itself, it might leave you thinking Really? Is that it? by the time it’s done. Nevertheless, I’m a creature of habit, and this list has become a habit, so let’s get reading:

  1. Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosch. The sequel to Hyperbole and a Half, I might have loved this one even more. It’s quirky and weird, and appeals to a very specific brand of humor, but if you possess that brand of humor, you will love it. The book is like a kind of hybrid memoir/graphic novel, and Allie (I feel like we’re on a first-name basis, two books in) knows just how to balance words and pictures. This one goes to some really dark places at times, because life goes to some really dark places at times, so be forewarned. If you deal with depression (which I don’t), her descriptions of it may make you cry. If you deal with grief (which I do), her descriptions of that may make you cry. Her understanding of human nature is often downright profound, but she arrives at some pretty empty conclusions about life, and that made me cry a little too. I even prayed for her while I read, which is not, like, a customary thing I do for authors. The book is sometimes hard to read, but she knows how to move from humor to sadness and back again, how to make fun of herself and others while maintaining a sense of dignity, and how to draw and write in a way that tugs at every emotion I possess.
  2. Every Moment Holy by Douglas McKelvey. Breaking from tradition in my book reviews, this isn’t an “open it up and read it from cover to cover” kind of book. Breaking from tradition yet again, this wasn’t a 2020 book for me. I’ve had this beauty for a couple of years but felt that now was the time to share it. It’s a beautifully-published, beautifully-illustrated, beautifully-worded book of liturgies, for mostly ordinary activities. There’s a liturgy for making coffee, or for planting flowers. There are ones for mealtimes, one for arriving at the ocean, another for a moment of hearing birdsong. There are liturgies for medical procedures, and for failing health. There are liturgies for moments of doubt. They nearly always make me cry. I wept as we read some with and for my dad this summer. If you don’t have a copy of this, get one immediately. Or tell me you don’t have one and I will buy one for you. Seriously. I have purchased more copies of this than I can even keep track of. Of the people I have given it to, several of them have purchased more copies than they can keep track of, to give to others. It’s a book that needs to be owned by…well, by everyone, but especially by those who love Jesus. (Amazon has the smaller version of the book, which is much bigger than “pocket-sized,” and I actually like this copy best, I think. And The Rabbit Room sells the standard size as well as the “pocket” size.)
  3. The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray. At a time when the ideas of intersectionality have become very nearly sacrosanct, Murray — who is himself gay — makes a strong case for why identity politics is inherently illogical and actually at odds with the goals it claims to want to achieve. The book is both entertaining and thought-provoking, but will also leave you feeling agitated about basically everything, because the world really has gone mad. Shortly after I finished reading the book, my husband received an email from a stranger asking him to please cut all business ties with a specific person in our industry, because that businessperson quietly holds some views that are contrary to the views of the person who sent the email. Now, Todd receives emails like this on a pretty regular basis, and some of those messages are slightly more warranted than others, assuming it’s ever warranted to email strangers out of the blue and try to boss them around. I assure you this email was not one of the slightly-warranted ones, and this whole situation is more than I can comprehend. How entitled do you have to be, how smug, to send an email like that?? To have the audacity of thinking it’s appropriate to email the CEO of a software company — someone whom you have never met — and to tell that CEO exactly what kinds of professional business relationships they are allowed to form, based on your personal criteria, and with the expectation of being obeyed. Hey! Hi there, hey. You don’t know me, but you’d probably be extremely interested to know that when I buy LaCroix, I only buy Pamplemousse, because it is the best flavor of LaCroix. Well, it JUST SO HAPPENS that someone you know refuses to buy stock in Pamplemousse LaCroix, and I feel personally attacked by that. You couldn’t possibly have already been aware of this person’s hateful behavior, because if you had been, I’m sure you would have immediately CUT ALL TIES with them. But now that I, an aggressively proactive and friendly stranger, have got you up to speed, I’m trusting that you will DO THE RIGHT THING and CUT ALL TIES with them. You and that person are not friends anymore. YOU AND I are friends now. Because I said so. xoxoxo #teampamplemousseforever xoxoxo ……………Wow, I really derailed myself there. When I said “haphazard,” I wasn’t kidding. Anywho, if you want to read it (and get yourself all riled up like I clearly am), this one makes for a great audiobook. Douglas Murray reads it himself, and his easy-to-listen-to British voice is sometimes full of compassion, and sometimes it simply drips with sarcasm.
  4. Living Life Backward by David Gibson. This book about Ecclesiastes — one of the most confusing, rich, and often misunderstood books of the Old Testament — was recommended to me by my mom, through one of her friends, and then a whole bunch of my friends read it too. It really made the rounds in my little circle back in January, before we knew what 2020 would hold, and it proved to be a well-timed gem, shedding much light on the book of Ecclesiastes and encouraging us to live well, knowing life on this earth does not last forever.
  5. Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth. I had somehow never heard of this book, but a friend gave it to me and it was one of the most entertaining things I read this year. Entertaining, you say? Is it a joke book, then? Nope. A farcical adventure? No again! It’s a book on….RHETORIC! And it had me in stitches more than once. It was also an incredibly fascinating read. If you like words and books and movies even a little bit, or if you just like clever writing and want to gain some arsenal for your trivia belt, get this book. The copy I have is hardback and it’s beautiful, and I actually don’t know where it came from because Amazon only has the paperback available. This book deserves to be judged by its cover AND its content, so get the hardback if you can.
  6. One More Thing by B.J. Novak. In a strange turn of events for me, I didn’t read much fiction this year. Well, there were the two I mentioned at the top, which clearly made quite the impression on me, but otherwise…not so much. However, my dear friend/cousin-in-law recommended this collection of short stories — specifically the audio version, read by the author + other familiar voices — and it more than delivered. Bizarre, weird, sometimes philosophical, and so, so funny, B.J. Novak and Friends do a perfect job reading it. I do need to say, several books on this list contain language and/or other mature content, but this one needs to be mentioned specifically because it is sometimes a little jarring. There were a few moments in the book that were ruined for me by taking a suddenly gross or obscene turn, but I liked the rest so much that I’m just choosing to forget those moments.
  7. Creation Matters by Dale Kiefer, a.k.a. my dad. Part Bible study and part devotional, the book is made up of 52 short lessons exploring God’s role as Creator, and why this is a deeply important facet of His character. It’s a great book to use for your own personal study, with your family, or with a small group. I wish I’d put this book on my list last year, when Dad could have seen it there and known how proud I am to be his daughter. I hope he knew that anyway. I think he did. For his part, he always made sure I knew. His love for me made it easier to understand God’s love, and it’s one of the things I’m most grateful for.

May I return now
from the world of this book
to the daily details of my own life
with truer vision and fiercer hope,
trailing with me remnants of that coming glory
I have glimpsed again
in story.

from Every Moment Holy
“Lament Upon the Finishing of a Beloved Book”

2020 Book Review

  1. Kaci Lundgren says:

    Why did I suddenly cry a little at the end when you had the words in your dad’s own hand and then the quote from Every Moment Holy? I don’t know, maybe I’m tired, but they struck me…haunting and beautiful. Thanks for sharing your list! The top on my list this year were To Kill a Mockingbird, Sir Gibbie (by George MacDonald), Just Mercy, and Robinson Crusoe.

    • elisajoy says:

      Would you believe I’ve never read Robinson Crusoe? And I’ve read The Baronet’s Song but not Sir Gibbie. Should I? And I love those other two!:)

  2. Hitomi says:

    Reading your annual book review has become one of my favorite traditions in the beginning of the new year. As always, I loved it, and as always, you put life to words in a way that felt like you were reading my mind, made me cry unexpectedly, and inspired me to read more. Thank you!!

  3. Cassia says:

    Total ditto to Hitomi.
    I look forward to your year-start reviews all year long, and look back at your old reviews often to make sure I didn’t overlook something excellent :).
    You inspire me in more ways than I can say…including the heavy reality that reading is not life, but for life, and when life (or death) gets in the way of reading it is only a sign that life (or death) is stretching its legs and preparing the mind for that glorious race.
    Love you Lovely Lady 🙂

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