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!

Enter Video Games

I am writing this column on the afternoon of the day after Christmas, while the rest of my family are playing video games out in the yurt.

Every word of the previous sentence was made possible by my husband. For starters, he participated in the creation of “the rest of my family” – our children. And since their arrival, he has devoted a significant portion of his substantial brain power to dreaming up ways to keep them playing. (Our children have him to thank for the treehouse, trampoline, and ice rink. Plans for a zipline are in the works, I hear).

The yurt was my husband’s vision, anticipating the day when our adolescent children would long for a semi-private space to hang out with friends (and when we’d want that space to be as close to home as possible). It was built in December 2019, before we had adolescent children or a pandemic. Now that we have both, the yurt has become a key ingredient to our family’s sanity: a detached space with great ventilation where we’ve hosted numerous small gatherings in ways that felt safe. I like to think of it as my husband’s Field of Dreams(“If you build it, they will come.”).

Of course, an empty yurt isn’t much fun. Once the yurt was erected, my husband shifted his focus to filling it (or, more accurately, convincing generous grandparents to fill it). Christmas of 2019 brought us a foosball table. Last Christmas we were gifted a digital projector and large screen, so that we could watch movies out in the yurt. 

And this Christmas, it was video games in the form of a Nintendo Switch. 

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. https://www.addisonindependent.com/2021/12/28/faith-gong-enter-video-games/

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.

The Thanksgiving Paradox

Exactly one week before Thanksgiving this year my eldest child turned 14. 

Recalling the events surrounding her birth felt a little bit like walking the Stations of the Cross: Now is when the chest pain started, this is the time we went to the emergency room, here is where the doctors in labor and delivery explained about preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome, right about now they told us that the only way the baby and I would survive would be with an emergency c-section, this is when I held her for a moment before they whisked her off to the NICU.

As I ran through this timeline in my mind, I felt overwhelmed by gratitude. I gave silent thanks to God for the doctors who’d cared for us, for living in a time in place in which I had access to good health care, for all the tiny details — some of which I’m surely unaware of — that made the difference between life and death. 

The interesting thing about gratitude is that most, if not all, of our thanksgiving comes from a place in which there are two parallel stories: the one that happened, and the one that didn’t. 

My newborn daughter and I nearly died, but we didn’t. 

We had another brush with death in 2020 with our youngest child, who stopped breathing in response to a respiratory infection and was intubated in the PICU for a week. He nearly died, but he didn’t.

And just this past spring, a freak tornado missed our house by 50 yards. It could have hit us, but it didn’t. 

It needn’t be a matter of life and death: So many of the “everyday” things we’re grateful for — family, friends, shelter, food, employment, health — carry with them a shadow side, a sense of the possibility of life without these things.

I think the shadow side of our gratitude is vitally important; in fact, I think our deepest, most mature thanks comes when we hold on to and acknowledge the potential unhappy outcome even as we’re grateful for the happy one.

We tend not to do this. We want to push away all thoughts of the shadowy things that might have been. That’s natural: Those things are depressing, scary, negative. But when we do this, our thanksgiving becomes a more shallow affair. “Thank goodness I dodged that bullet,” we say, and move on. 

Perhaps the most important result of holding on to the shadow side of our thanks is that it keeps us from believing that good things have come to us because we deserve them, that we avoided disaster because of our own merits. I know full well that my children and I didn’t deserve to survive our brushes with death more than the countless mothers and children who don’t every day. That a tornado missed our house but destroyed our neighbors’ is not because of anything we did. And while we enjoy friends, family, shelter, food, employment, and health, the undeniable reality is that there are virtuous and deserving people around the world who lack these very things. 

I feel that it’s crucial to acknowledge this, because when I say “thanks,” I’m not calling out to an impersonal universe: I am thanking God. But the God I am thanking does not operate on a system of earned rewards, dispensing blessings to the good and punishment to the bad. In the words of the inimitable Anne Lamott, “God is not a short-order cook.” No: My understanding is that God is much bigger and more complex than that, with an eternal view of time and history that I do not have. 

Here is what I know: Death, loss, and tornadoes both real and metaphorical will come to us all. At times when the shadow side of life has become my reality, I have found it profoundly unhelpful to dwell on whether it was fair; what mattered most at those times was my sense that God was very much there. And that was cause for thanks even when the harvest brought in pain.

The settlers whom we call the Pilgrims understood this, I think. Last week, as part of our study of American history, my daughters and I took a virtual tour of Plimouth Plantation: A video in which actors interpreting actual Pilgrims and Native Americans were interviewed on site at the original Plimouth colony. 

During this tour, I learned that what we call the “First Thanksgiving” was really a harvest feast. By contrast, when there was something about which the Pilgrims were particularly thankful, a day of fasting and prayer would be decreed. 

In other words, the Pilgrims celebrated their gratitude not by consuming a massive meal, but by foregoing food. The people to whom we attribute our stuffed bellies every Thanksgiving actually gave thanks by allowing their stomachs to sit empty. 

This is so very different from how our culture celebrates now. It feels like a paradox: How can you possibly give thanks by going hungry? But it makes perfect sense if part of thanksgiving is remembering the shadow side: We give thanks for our plenty by recalling how it feels to be in want. 

One of my favorite poems of all time does this beautifully, so I share it with you as a wish for a deeply meaningful Thanksgiving, with equal parts shadow and light: 

THANKS

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

–W.S. Merwin, from The Rain in the Trees (Knopf, 1998) and Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). Copyright © 1988 by W. S. Merwin. 

My Interview on Vermont Viewpoint

I did a fun new thing today: Ric Cengeri of “Vermont Viewpoint” invited me onto his radio show to discuss my writing and my recent column on field hockey. Here is the link to the interview.

Ric is a veteran journalist and a fantastic interviewer, so you should probably listen to the entire show and subscribe to the podcast. However, if you’re craving efficiency, I’m on for the final 30 minutes.

I will add that this was my first LIVE radio interview, and it was a little terrifying. After it was finished I second-guessed just about everything I said, including the ages of my kids. So please know that if anything I say offends you, it offends me more.

Thank you, friends, for listening and for continuing to read this!

Dispatch From the Field Hockey Sidelines

Field hockey season ended yesterday. 

Cue: Angel choirs, rainbows and unicorns, my husband and I holding hands and skipping towards the sunset through a field of wildflowers. 

Ever since field hockey season started in late August, we have clung to the promise of October 18 like a life raft on a stormy sea. To hear my husband and me talk, you’d think that after October 18 the peaceable kingdom would reign on earth: our family would be well rested and content, our calendar would have empty spaces, our vehicles could go more than a week on a tank of gas, and the lion would lie down with the lamb. “After October 18, everything will be easier,” we promised each other all fall. 

My daughters love field hockey, so they will be sad. And because we love them and want them to be happy, we will be sad, too. A little bit. 

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

Thoughts on Thriving

If you were reading this column back in 2020, you may remember that my “word for the year” – which I chose instead of making a New Year’s resolution – was “THRIVE.” 

When 2020 began, our baby boy had just been given the diagnosis of “failure to thrive.” This, combined with a mysterious respiratory virus, resulted in two hospital stays between December 2019 and January 2020, one of which involved the horrific experience of having our two-month-old intubated in the ICU. We needed to help him thrive; not only that, but our entire shaken family needed to figure out how to thrive together.

In retrospect, the word seems like an ironic choice: Two months later, COVID hit. 

In many ways our family did thrive in 2020, just not in the ways I might have predicted. Our little boy was the most obvious success: The months of lockdown kept him from getting sick while he gained weight and strength. He is now a hefty, active toddler. The rest of us worked hard to thrive as a family through the disappointment of cancelled plans and the monotony of housebound days. We tried to adopt behaviors that would keep ourselves and others safe during an unknown and rapidly changing pandemic situation, while still attempting to prioritize things that aided our mental, emotional, social, physical, and spiritual health. 

It was exhausting. And when the year ended, I looked around and realized that I had two adolescents in the house who were struggling to thrive.

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

Dog Days

It’s that time of year again.

Our family has now logged in eight straight weeks of summer vacation. We have spent countless sultry days at the lake, eaten gallons of ice cream, lit sparklers, chased fireflies. Our annual trip to the Maine coast has come and gone. I am tired of weeding the garden. My daughters have stayed up late binge watching “The Clone Wars” so often that it feels routine. “What are we doing today?” they ask each morning, and – although much of what I thought we’d do this summer has been left undone – I am running out of ideas. School remains weeks away.

The dog days: In our house, they aren’t so much about the weather as they are about a fuzzy, sultry, oppressive state of mind. 

This year, however, my daughters have taken the concept of the dog days literally, by renewing their campaign for a puppy.

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

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

This summer I cut off all my hair. 

It’s a long story, which began in the summer of 2019 when my aunt, who was battling cancer, told my daughters and me about wigs. We were together on our family’s annual vacation in Maine, all of us gathered on the sunny front porch. My aunt had begun losing her hair from the treatments, and she described the shop where she’d been able to choose from a wide variety of wigs made from donated human hair. 

I had no idea how much this conversation had impacted my children until several months later, when one of my daughters suggested that we all grow out our hair to donate for cancer patients, in honor of my aunt. (It was one of those mothering moments when I felt hope that my children might turn out to be kind, caring people despite all of my mistakes). 

When we committed to growing out our hair, my four daughters and I had hair that ranged from shoulder-length to longer. We did some research and learned that we’d need to provide between 10-12 inches of hair. It didn’t seem like a far-off goal. 

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

Early Summer Snapshots

The weather never seems to be normal lately: too wet or too dry, too cold or too hot, record this, record that. It could be that there never really was a “normal” – that weather is just prone to dramatic fluctuations from year to year. Or it could be that climate change is ramping up in earnest, like they’ve always said it would. Whatever the reason, it’s probably a good idea to pay attention.

I’m not always good at paying attention to things that aren’t screaming for my attention. But this year, the weather has gotten pretty close to screaming at me through a series of violent storms. 

Most dramatic was the tornado that ripped across our property in late March, toppling power lines and our neighbors’ buildings. Two months later, to the day, a severe thunderstorm blew down trees in downtown Middlebury and knocked out our power for about 15 hours – notable because it was the day of our daughters’ piano recital on Zoom, necessitating a scramble to find a location that still had power. 

Those two storms made us twitchy enough that when we got the bulletin about another severe thunderstorm headed our way last week, we sprang into action. This storm had a buildup that lasted for hours. As scary-looking clouds mounted in the sky, my husband cooked dinner at 3 p.m. in case we lost power, and I walked the dog through powerful wind gusts. 

Our efforts were puny compared with those of our neighbors, who were haying our field.

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