Favorite Books of 2021

New Year: Time to Organize Our Bookshelves!

Last year I enjoyed sharing my favorite books of 2020, so I decided to do it again this year. It turns out that I love keeping a list of the books I read: It’s easy to do even when traditional journaling feels like too much effort, and it’s fun to look back and recall the books that shaped my year. Without further ado, therefore, I present my picks from 2021:

Favorite Fiction (Sorry, I couldn’t pick just one!)

The Elegence of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.

This was my sleeper hit of the year: I would never have read this book had someone in my book group not picked it for a month’s read, and I almost abandoned it because I found the characters, all of whom live in an apartment building in Paris, so irritating at first. But as I continued, I was shocked as the tale morphed slowly into a beautiful fable full of beauty and love. The ending took my breath away. Please read it, and stick with it!

Island of the World by Michael D. O’Brien.

At 839 pages, this book is a commitment — perfect for the winter months. It follows the ordinary, extraordinary Josip Lasta from his childhood in Bosnia, through the horrific events of post-World War II Yugoslavia, to a new life in New York City. A sweeping story of loss and redemption, it’s one of those books about which I can only say, “It’s about life.”

Deacon King Kong by James McBride.

Set in a Brooklyn housing project in 1969, Deacon King Kong tells the story of Sportcoat, an alcoholic church deacon who inexplicably shoots the neighborhood drug dealer. McBride, who grew up in the Red Hook Projects, pulls us into a shifting landscape in which Italian mobsters are losing ground to the up-and-coming drug trade, and a community is trying to hold its center when all forces seem to be against it. This is a tale of surprising grace.

Favorite Classic

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

This year I read (or re-read) all of Jane Austen’s books. Any one of them would be worth a mention here, but Sense and Sensibility remains my all-time favorite. The story of sisters Marianne and Elinor Dashwood and their vastly different responses to the trials of young love (sense vs. sensibility) is surprisingly modern, bitingly funny, and ultimately inspiring: It will make you want to be a better person. (I’ll also put in a shout-out for the movie version starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet).

Favorite Non-Fiction

More Than a Woman by Caitlin Moran

This is another book I would never have read had it not been a book group pick. (Bless you, book group!) It’s not my typical fare: British journalist Moran can be very, very crass — British-sailor-on-a-bender-in-the-pub crass. But she’s written a hilarious and honest memoir of middle aged womanhood. Her insights into marriage, work, friendship, and (gasp!) parenting teenagers often startled me with their wisdom.

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

My teenager introduced me to John Green when she invited me to read his young adult novel, The Fault in Our Stars (also worth a read), but The Anthropocene Reviewed is a book of essays written for adults. Its conceit is a series of “reviews” of various features of our current geologic age — both the manmade and the natural. Some of Green’s observations are so beautiful and profound that they move me to tears (see, in particular, “Sunsets” and “Googling Strangers”). Pro Tip: John Green and his brother Hank also host a podcast called “Dear Hank and John” that we’ve really enjoyed listening to with our older children.

Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs by Heather Lende

Heather Lende lives in a small town in Alaska, and if nothing else this book would be a fascinating look into her world. But it’s so much more: A series of essays loosely organized around her near-death and recovery from a horrific bicycle accident. If that sounds like a downer, it’s anything but: This is one of the most life-affirming books I’ve read all year. I feel some kinship with Lende, who also has five children and writes a column for her local paper. Her description of how she writes her column (“I try not to think about it for four or five days…[and] by then I’ve started to panic….”) is spot-on.

Favorite Books on Christian/Spiritual Topics

Everybody Always by Bob Goff

Bob Goff (who also wrote the excellent Love Does)is perhaps the only author who can convince me to even consider skydiving. I’m always inspired by his completely open, loving approach to all humankind (including, in this book, a child-abducting Ugandan witch doctor).

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene Peterson

Not a light read (the subtitle is A Conversation in Spiritual Theology) but a beautifully written and profound one. Like Bob Goff, Peterson inspires me to examine my faith and question where I’m getting too comfortable. This is the first book I’ve read by the late Eugene Peterson; next up is A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. (If I had a category for “Best Book Titles,” he’d win that, too!)

This Beautiful Truth by Sarah Clarkson

Clarkson introduced me to the concept of “theodicy” — the study of how a good God can coexist with an evil world. In this book, she uses her gorgeous prose to detail her own struggles with mental illness, and to advocate for the breaking-in of beauty as evidence of God’s goodness.

Favorite Children’s Book

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

I read this book twice this year: once by myself, and once aloud to my children. It has become one of my all-time favorites. Milford masterfully creates a world within the confines of Greenglass House, a cozy old smugglers’ inn where sundry travelers are stranded by a Christmas snowstorm. As it turns out, none of the travelers are there by accident; they’re united by the mysteries and surprises contained within Greenglass House. This is an especially excellent read for families with adopted children.

Favorite Book About Education/Parenting

Hearts of the Mountain by Tal Birdsey

Twenty years ago, Tal Birdsey and a small group of parents founded a tiny, unconventional middle school in Vermont’s Green Mountains. In this book, Birdsey compresses his decades of teaching into a single, representative “year” at the North Branch School. Full disclosure: This was particularly interesting to me because two of my children currently attend NBS. However, I’d recommend this book for anybody who teaches or parents middle schoolers: It’s a remarkable depiction of the magic that can occur when you love each student for who they are, and give them the space to express their deepest selves.

That’s it! As always, I’ve provided the Amazon links but would encourage you to support your local bookstore(s). Wishing you a 2022 full of the joys of good books!

In Which We Make a Gingerbread House

Like most pivotal events, it started with a simple question: “Mommy, are they doing the gingerbread houses again?”

By “they,” my daughter was referring to the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, which has hosted the annual Gingerbread House Competition for the past 23 years. Individuals and families create gingerbread houses reflecting the year’s theme, and community members vote for their favorite entries. Usually, the houses are displayed at the Folklife Center, but for the past two years the competition has been virtual, with photos of entries available for viewing online. 

Viewing the year’s gingerbread houses has become a favorite holiday tradition for our family: Every year my children look forward to seeing the amazing and beautiful things that people create out of edible materials. Every year, they say, “We should enter next year!” And every year, I have successfully deferred our actual involvement in creating a gingerbread house – until now. 

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” in The Addison Independent.

Dispatch From the Library Desk

A friend asked me recently what I do to get a break from the demands of my everyday life: from the constant noise, mess, decision-making, and physical labor involved in parenting (and homeschooling) five children – with a husband and a bunch of animals thrown in, too.

In the past, I would have mentioned rising at dawn for daily quiet time to recharge my spirit, or how my husband sometimes watches our children for a chunk of hours on the weekend to give me a rest, or the occasional two-day retreat (the last of which happened three years ago).

But this time I had a quick response: “I go to work!” 

That’s right: After a decade of unpaid labor raising the next generation and managing our family’s little world, I have rejoined the paid workforce as a library substitute. This is what happens when you’re good friends with your town’s Children’s Librarian, and you offer to help when she bemoans the current sub shortage. The next thing I knew, I was filling out tax forms and being trained to work behind the desk that I’ve stood in front of thousands of times. 

The wonderful thing about being a sub is that I can work within a schedule of my choosing. My children don’t go off to school every weekday (well, they do, but I am the school). Working on weekdays during the school year would be near-impossible, but I’m more than ready to leave the house by Saturday. That’s why you’ll find me behind Ilsley Public Library’s youth desk every Saturday in May and June. 

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

Crying At the Movies

We were snuggled up on the couch (or crammed in, depending on your perspective) for our family’s weekly Friday movie night. In the flickering light from the screen, I could see three pairs of worried eyes staring at me.

“Uh, Mommy,” whispered one of my daughters, “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” I sobbed. “This scene just gets me every time.”

We were watching the 2015 Pixar animated feature, Inside Out. The last time I’d seen this film was in a theater five years earlier, and I’d broken down in sobs during the exact same scene. 

Inside Out takes place largely inside the brain of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. Riley’s emotions go haywire during a time of major change in her life, and the film follows Joy and Sadness as they try to get Riley back on track. In the scene that always shreds me, the two emotions have met Riley’s old imaginary friend, “Mr. Bing Bong,” in her long-term memory. Joy and Bing Bong become trapped in the Memory Dump, where memories fade into oblivion. They attempt to ride a toy wagon out of the dump, but Bing Bong realizes that the two of them are too heavy. He helps Joy launch the wagon, and then he bails out in mid-air. Joy escapes, realizes he’s no longer with her, and looks back down into the Memory Dump. Bing Bong, as he vanishes, waves up at her and calls, “Take [Riley] to the moon for me, okay?”

Gah! 

It seems I will never be able to watch this scene without dissolving into tears. My children don’t understand (yet). I’m not sure I understand entirely, either: Why should I weep repeatedly over the disappearance of an animated pink cat-elephant-dolphin hybrid that only ever existed in a fictional child’s imagination? 

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

my 2020 LITERARY Favorites

2020 was a LOT of things, but for me it was (among other things) a year of READING.

I always read more during years when we have a new baby in the house, as we did this year. I find that frequent feedings — particularly those that happen in the wee hours — lend themselves to reading. The drastic narrowing of our lives due the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t hurt, either. I read for at least an hour each day of 2020, and usually had both a nonfiction and a fiction book going simultaneously.

Inspired by friends, I kept a list of the 43 books I read this year. Almost none of them were recent releases; the theme of my 2020 reading seems to be that I either re-read books from my past, or read classics that I’d always wanted to read but never gotten around to. It is not the most edgy or diverse list of books and authors, but I feel fairly unapologetic about that: There was enough edginess going on in my real life. These books were the literary equivalent of a cup of something warm and a freshly baked treat. My 2020 reading gave me comfort and challenged me in gentle ways to think deeply about community, family, and love. Because reading was one of the highlights of my year, I decided to share some of my favorite books with you. (NOTE: I am including links on Amazon, though I would encourage you to buy these at your local bookstores or used bookstores.)

Favorite Classic

This is a tie between the two works that bookended my year, both of which I hope to re-read in the future:

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Middlemarch was tough going for me at first: I read and re-read the first few pages while struggling to keep my eyes open during midnight baby feedings. But I stuck with it and was richly rewarded. It is an epic story of the choices we make, and their consequences. When I read the powerful final lines (while in the hospital with the baby), I sighed audibly with satisfaction and sorrow: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Yes.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I am not a rabid Dickens fan: I found Oliver Twist to be overwrought, and when I read Great Expectations (perhaps too early) my life remained unchanged. But David Copperfield, the final book I read in 2020, was such a delightful and stirring journey through a life that I was genuinely sorry to reach the final, thousand-something page. I plan to read more Dickens in the future.

Favorite Fiction

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

The sleeper hit of my year: A quiet book about an unremarkable life that becomes remarkable in its ordinary beauty.

Favorite Non-Fiction

Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

This is part memoir of Kristof’s childhood in working-class Yamhill, Oregon, and part laser-eyed examination of why so many Americans are slipping through the cracks of our society into addiction, poverty, and chronic hopelessness. I found it to be a balanced and fair look that shed light on much of what is happening in the country right now. And, while it’s not pretty, Kristof and WuDunn write with hope and make practical suggestions.

Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler

A young wife, mother, and rising star at Duke Divinity School (as a historian specializing in megachurches and the “prosperity gospel”), Kate Bowler was living her best life. Then she was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer at age 35. Her account of that experience is painful, funny, and unforgettable. Highly recommended for those going through difficult times, or those walking alongside the difficult times of others (which is everybody) — it will change how you approach life’s hardest moments.

Favorite Biography

A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle by Sarah Arthur and Charlotte Jones Voiklis

I’m not sure I can give words to how beautifully written this book is, or how it turns the traditional biographic form inside out. A gift from a friend (Thanks, Deborah!) it inspired me to embark upon a mini “L’Engle splurge” over the summer, which was well worth it.

Favorite Book About Education/Parenting

The Call of the Wild + Free: Reclaiming Wonder in Your Child’s Education by Ainsley Arment

Every summer, I indulge in what I consider “professional development reading” before we begin a new homeschool year. I’ve read a LOT of great books about education, homeschooling, and parenting, so it’s getting harder to inspire me with anything new, but The Call of the Wild + Free did just that. It’s a physically beautiful book, with gorgeous photographs and drawings, and it’s full of facts, inspiration, and practical tips for giving your children the gift of a childhood.

Favorite Series

Again, a tie:

This year, I re-read the entire Harry Potter series, as well as the entire Anne of Green Gables series. Both were the perfect pandemic reads: Harry Potter for its magical-world escapism, struggle between good and evil, and the saving power of love; Anne of Green Gables for its humor, endearing portrayal of human foibles, and depiction of our capacity for resilience under the most trying circumstances.

Favorite “New” Author

This was the year that I “discovered” Elizabeth Goudge (although she’s been dead since 1984!) I had encountered Goudge previously when I read her children’s book, The Little White Horse, to my daughters a few years ago. They adored the book, but I was lukewarm: It felt a little too fantastical, and everything tied up too neatly at the end. This year, I began reading Goudge’s grown-up fiction, and her writing takes my breath away. I began with Green Dolphin Street, which is an epic, globe-spanning story about what love really means, even when you marry the wrong person (literally the WRONG PERSON, not just “Gee, I wish I hadn’t married him/her!”) I’m now nearly through The Scent of Water, in which Goudge somehow manages to embed very tough topics (mental illness, marital strife, disappointing children, death, and disability, among others) into a charming novel about an English country village. Nothing is tied up too neatly; her books make me marvel at both the beauty and pain that co-exist in life. Next up for me is Pilgrim’s Inn.

Favorite Children’s Books

We read together a LOT as a family; I can usually be found reading aloud to all of our children on school mornings, every night before bed, and at moments in between. Our wonderful children’s librarian, Ms. Tricia (HI TRICIA!) categorizes children’s literature as either “mirrors” (books that reflect your experience back to yourself) or “windows” (books through which you can get a taste of a different experience/person.) I’ve decided to list one of each type of book here.

Favorite “Mirror” Book: The Vanderbeekers Lost and Found by Karina Yan Glaser

This is the fourth and latest book in the Vanderbeeker series, and you should read them all. The books center around a bi-racial family with five children (mirror!) that lives in Harlem (okay, that’s a bit of a window for us.) The Vanderbeekers face real-world challenges but — sometimes through misguided efforts — manage to bring light and love to everyone around them.

Favorite “Window” Book: A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

I read this to the girls as part of our history unit on Africa, and it made a huge impact on all of us. Park interweaves the stories of two 11-year-olds from Sudan: Nya, who in 2011 spends most of her time fetching water for her family, and Salva, one of the “lost boys” who becomes a refugee when the civil war separates him from his family in 1985. Not light material, but Park presents the stories with beautiful sensitivity. It opened up some wonderful conversations in our family and even inspired my daughters to try carrying water up to our house from a nearby stream (hilariously hard!) An excellent companion read is the graphic novel, When Stars Are Scattered.

Nobody knows what 2021 will bring, but I do know that it will find me reading more books! I wish you all many wonderful books in the new year.

Stone Soup

When I began writing this column in 2012, my vision was that it would be a space to record the observations and anecdotes of my young family as we explored our new home state of Vermont. I never expected to still be writing eight years later; given that timespan, it’s hardly surprising that the column’s focus has shifted as my family became less young and Vermont became less new. Somehow, though, I never seemed to lack enough material to generate a new biweekly column. 

Until now.

It’s stating the obvious to say that the restrictions made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic have been challenging in many ways, for all of humanity. In my own case, it’s difficult to write a column of observations and anecdotes when my world is now limited mostly to my own house, yard, driveway, and immediate family. (Granted, my immediate family is quite pleased when I include them in columns, but I’ve become more concerned with protecting my children’s privacy.) Still, when COVID struck, I determined to make this column a place where people could find beauty and respite from the stresses of life, the ugliness of the news and social media. Nobody needs more hopelessness these days; it felt like one tiny thing I could do to write a few words that might give hope.

But I’ve rarely struggled to find hope as I have this week. This week, as the unseasonably warm weather we’d enjoyed in Vermont gave way at last to a more typical chill, grey November. This week, as COVID cases surged around the world and in Vermont, prompting Governor Phil Scott to issue a mandate prohibiting all multi-family gatherings, whether inside or out. This week, as there is still seemingly no end in sight to the tensions swirling around the 2020 Presidential election, let alone the brokenness it revealed in our nation. This week, as I carry the weight and sorrow of many friends and family members who have recently received bad news or are awaiting diagnoses. 

This week, I was not sure I could write a column worthy of putting out into the world. 

And then a friend’s eight-year-old son reminded me about Stone Soup. 

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

Wrestling With Monsters

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This morning, I collected our family’s weekly order of library books at the pickup spot in Ilsley Public Library’s back garden (an event that inspires a level of excitement in my children just a notch below Christmas these days.) Included in our bag of books was my book group’s pick for the month: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. So today, a cloudy grey day when the temperature has dipped into the 50s and it feels more like the last days of autumn than the first days of summer, I am thinking about monsters.

More accurately, I am thinking about evil. Monsters are the embodiment of evil; beings that give form to our fears.

The past few weeks have been dark ones for our country. It may be June across the nation, but it feels more like November, with heavy grey clouds swirling over our collective mood as we reckon with our evil history of slavery, racism, and injustice. As part of this process, Confederate war memorials have been singled out as objects that give form to our fears: Robert E. Lee is the monster to be toppled.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Of Quizzes and Identity Crises

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My children have done many things to amuse themselves while staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have read, read, and read some more. They have logged in countless hours on our trampoline and ninja slackline. They have played games: chess, poker, Apples to Apples, Unstable Unicorns, and Monopoly Deal. They have made art, baked, finished embroidery projects, and all four of my daughters are currently at work on novels.

But one of their most enduring hobbies throughout this time has surprised me: The taking – and making – of personality quizzes.

It started back in March, when a friend emailed me a link to a quiz that inventoried your personality traits and produced an extensive list of the book and film characters you most resembled. Thinking it would be a fun diversion, I shared it with my daughters. Little did I know that they’d take the concept and run wild with it.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

The Greater Good

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In order for me to have time and quiet in which to write this column, my husband took all five of our children to ride bikes around their grandparents’ neighborhood.

Once upon a time, this would have been a normal occurrence on a Sunday afternoon, but not today.

This is the first time I have been alone – really and completely alone, without a single member of my family in the house – in over a month.

This is the first time my children have been in a vehicle, the first time they have pulled out of our driveway onto the main road, in over a month.

“I forget what it’s like to ride in a car!” exclaimed my eldest daughter as they prepared to leave. “How do we do it?”

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

American Orphans

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Our children had some friends over this past weekend, and they decided to embark on an outdoor adventure. The negotiations, as I overheard them, went something like this:

“Let’s pretend we’re on the Oregon Trail!”

“YES!”

“And also, some of us could be runaway slaves.”

“Okay, that works; that was around the same time.”

“I’ll be the Quaker person helping the slaves escape.”

“And also, we’re orphans….”

If they hadn’t been so insistent on historical accuracy, I’m pretty sure they would’ve added a couple of Jews fleeing the Nazis for good measure – they’ve played that before. (Jewish orphans, of course.)

I’m not entirely sure why children love playing at being orphans in perilous situations, but I know the attraction extends far beyond my own children. In fact, I remember loving a good orphan make-believe session myself; for at least a year of my own childhood, my friends and I pretended to be inmates in Miss Hannigan’s orphanage from the musical Annie.

Part of the appeal must lie in the sense of independence and courage that comes from imagining facing dangers alone, without the safety net of parents. In this way, games of “orphans in trouble” actually prepare our children for the reality of the world beyond childhood. The world can be a big and scary place, after all, and regardless of whether our parents are still alive, most of us have the sense at one time or another that we are on our own.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.