Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Favorite Books of 2009

I love books. That’s no secret, especially since I read for a living! But I don’t just have a passing interest in books; I love books the way a cat lady loves her cats. I pore over them, treasure them, and spend embarrassing amounts of time sorting them in our library (by category, then by author’s last name, in case you’re wondering). I have books in every room of the house (yes, every room), and I even stash books in the car, diaper bag, and my purse, so that I am never without something to read.

As a freelance book editor, I edit dozens of manuscripts every year. For example, in 2009, I worked on forty-three books. Most of them were really good reads—some of them are bestselling, amazing reads!—but all of them taught me something and helped me grow as a Christian, as a reader, as a person. And of course, the privilege of getting to know the authors I work with is priceless.

In addition to the books I edit, I also read books for the sheer joy of it. Some are light reads, while others make me think. Some help me improve my writing and editing skills, and others give me fresh insights on church planting and ministry life. All of them impact me in some way, even if it’s only to note how a poorly written book could have been improved!

On this last day of 2009, I thought it would be fun to share with you a few of my favorite personal reads from this past year--though not all of them were published in 2009. Enjoy!

*Note: None of the books I edited are on this list. Though I’ve worked on some truly great books this year, including them among my favorites would not only seem self-serving, but I couldn’t possibly pick one author over another. They’re all wonderful! :-)


Eyes to See, volumes 1 and 2, Bret Lott
If you want to read the classics but don’t have a lot of time to devote to lengthy, 19th-century novels, you’ll love these compilations! Bret Lott, editor and New York Times bestselling author, has compiled these two collections of “enduring stories that challenge and inspire.” Each chapter is a short story or chapter of a well-known book that will give you the richness and diversity of classic authors such as Leo Tolstoy, G.K. Chesterton, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, and Flannery O’Connor, to newer voices like John Updike, Frederick Buechner, and Helen Norris.

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
I can’t believe that I didn’t read this book when I was in school. How did I pass up such a gem? If you haven’t read A Wrinkle in Time, no matter your age, I highly recommend it. Though it can be read allegorically—and has much insight into the human condition and the nature of God’s truth—it’s also an enchanting story of love, longing, and loyalty.

The Giver, Lois Lowry
This short book packs a powerful punch! Reminiscent of Brave New World, Lowry’s The Giver is set in a futuristic society where the government has eliminated poverty, sickness, and unhappiness. But as 12-year-old Jonas discovers, this utopia comes at a terrible price. This intriguing story weaves Christian allegory with hauntingly contemporary insights.


Cold Tangerines: Celebrating the Extraordinary Nature of Everyday Life, Shauna Niequist

I stumbled upon this book on a clearance rack and honestly wasn’t expecting much from this author’s debut memoir—but I was pleasantly surprised! Cold Tangerines is a “shameless appeal for celebration,” says Niequist, and each chapter is flavored with vulnerable, poignant insights that showcase the myriad ways God infuses our everyday, messy, fragile lives. I laughed out loud at "Basement" (yep, we all have rooms that only our best friends are allowed to see) and related to many of her stories of friendship, love, and loss. I’m already looking forward to her sophomore book, due next fall.

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith and Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott

One of the authors I work with is repeatedly compared with Anne Lamott, so before editing his next book I decided to become familiar with Lamott's writing style. I found these at Half-Price Books, packed them in my pool bag (did I mention that I always carry books with me?), and read them while the kids splashed around in the pool this summer. Now, if you’re the type of person who only reads “Christian” books and takes offense to strong language or unconventional views of God, Lamott's writing isn't for you. But if you can appreciate the truth behind honest and witty irreverence, then you will love her books. As a writer, Lamott is truly exceptional. She has mastered the craft of storytelling, weaving tales so bittersweet and poignant that you will laugh out loud while reaching for your Kleenex. If you are a writer—of any genre—I recommend Lamott’s books as part of your library.

An American Childhood, Annie Dillard
I admit, I was on a bit of a “memoir” kick this summer, so next I ventured to Annie Dillard’s remarkable autobiography. This book is so exquisite, so breathtakingly well written, that it’s in a class of its own. The Philadelphia Inquirer review sums it up best: “The reader who can’t find something to whoop about in this book is not alive. An American Childhood is perhaps the best American autobiography since Russell Baker’s Growing Up.” Amen!

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, A. J. Jacobs
From the man who chronicled his reading of the entire Encyclopedia Britannica (The Know-It-All) comes one of the most hilarious books I’ve read in years. Make no mistake: Jacobs is not a religious man. He is a New York Jewish agnostic who describes himself as Jewish “in the same the way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant.” He decides to follow the laws and rules of the Bible, beginning with the Old Testament, for one year. He starts by growing a beard and chronicles every itchy moment. I was amused as Jacobs obsessed over literal interpretation of Bible verses. And I laughed hysterically when his menstruating wife got so mad she went around the house and sat on all the furniture, thus rendering everything “unclean.” In this book, you’ll meet a fascinating array of Jewish rabbis, Christians of every stripe, and Jacobs’ friends and neighbors who help him (or harass him) along this ambitious, memorable journey.


The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Tim Keller

If you only read one book in 2010, read this one! In the spirit of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Keller draws material from literary classics, philosophy, anthropology, and other disciplines to make an intellectually compelling case for God. With biblical insights, impeccable logic, and compelling insights, pastor Keller challenges skeptics’ most common objections to Christianity, such as “How could a good God allow suffering?” “Science has disproved Christianity,” “You can’t take the Bible literally,” and many more. Read this book and take lots of notes, reread it, and then pass it on to a friend.

The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, Tim Keller
After reading The Reason for God, I was eager to plunge into Keller’s next book The Prodigal God, despite its off-putting title. I’m glad I did! This book is much shorter and easier to read, so if you’re new to Tim Keller and daunted by the size and scope of his Reason for God, you might want to start with this one. In this book, Keller looks at the parable of the prodigal son from the perspective of the elder brother and uncovers God’s “prodigal” grace toward both the irreligious and the legalistic. Whether you’re a longtime churchgoer or haven’t set foot in church in years, this book will challenge, convict, and inspire you to seek a fresh relationship with God.

Passionate Conviction: Contemporary Discourses on Christian Apologetics, ed. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig
Yes, I know this sounds like an apologetics textbook, but it’s actually a fascinating read for anyone who wants to defend the Christian faith. Each chapter summaries a lecture from a national apologetics conference, including contributors J. P. Moreland, N. T. Wright, and Gary Habermas, to name a few. The book covers questions such as “Why Doesn’t God Make His Existence More Obvious to Us?”, “What Do We Know for Sure about Jesus’ Death?”, and “Is Morality Relative?,” in addition to fascinating insights ranging from science to ecclesiology, including the cosmological argument for intelligent design, Christianity’s uniqueness among Eastern religions, the challenges of postmodernism, and reflections on the emerging church.

Church Planting/ Ministry

Confessions of a Reformation Rev.: Hard Lessons from an Emerging Missional Church, Mark Driscoll

My husband is an experienced church planter, so I thoroughly enjoyed pastor Mark Driscoll’s engaging story of starting Mars Hill Church in Seattle. As a church planting wife, I could relate to many of Driscoll’s experiences of the failures, frustrations, and just plain messiness of planting a church that is faithful to the gospel of Christ in this post-Christian culture. I appreciate how Driscoll not only shares the story of Mars Hill but also presents lessons he learned as well as practices that worked. This is a valuable resource for any church planter or pastor.

Change Your Church for Good: The Art of Sacred Cow Tipping, Brad Powell *
(*Full disclosure: I edited an updated version of this book, but I’m commenting on the original hardcover I did not work on.) In this book, pastor Brad Powell shares his experiences of transitioning an old (and, at the time, culturally irrelevant) church into the vibrant, effective ministry of North Ridge Church in Detroit. His premise is that the church is the hope of the world—when it’s working right. Though his insights are directed to pastors who are transitioning small churches, there is much that applies to church planting as well. A recommended read for any church planter or pastor who wants an effective, relevant church.

Christian Living

Seeing God in the Ordinary: A Theology of the Everyday, Michael Frost

This book is a delightful treasure from Australian professor Michael Frost. In Seeing God in the Ordinary, Frost urges Christians to develop a robust faith that enables us to be filled with wonder at our astonishing God. Reminiscent of one of my all-time favorites—Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind—Frost urges readers to rediscover the place of imagination in the Christian life and explores how the great themes of Christianity are woven into modern books, poetry, and movies to reveal the presence of God in our day-to-day lives.

Fearless: Imagine Your Life without Fear, Max Lucado
Lucado’s latest book is a timely reminder that for those who know God, we have nothing to fear—not the economy, not healthcare, not even the tremulous state of the world. In his trademark style, Lucado examines Jesus’ statements about fear and encourages us to take heart, even in difficult times. Whether you’re new to Lucado or a longtime fan, this book will not disappoint.

Breathe: Creating Space for God in a Hectic Life, Keri Wyatt Kent
As a mother of three who juggles kids, church planting, an editing career, friends, and a never-ending to-do list, this book came along at just the right time for me. This light, easy read reminds women that our value isn’t found in what we do but in who we are. Keri’s decision to scale down her family’s activities affirmed my commitment to keep things simple with our children. If you are feeling weary and burdened, I encourage you to pick up this book, slow down—and breathe.


The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo
Kate DiCamillo is becoming one of my favorite authors. From her classics The Tale of Desperaux and Because of Winn-Dixie, to her lesser-known but still exquisite The Tiger Rising and The Magician’s Elephant, DiCamillo has the rare ability to write children’s stories that appeal to readers of all ages. Of all her books I’ve read so far, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is my favorite. This endearing tale of a china rabbit who, through a series of extraordinary events, learns how to love brought me to tears. If you like The Velveteen Rabbit, you will love The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. It’s a modern classic that has earned its way onto every child’s (and adult's) bookshelf.

The Help, Kathryn Stockett
With characters so rich and realistic, I’m still amazed that this is Stockett’s debut novel. Set in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, where black women “were trusted to raise white children but not to polish the household silver,” this is the tale of friendship, betrayal, anguish, and love written in such provoking detail that you feel swept up into the lives of these women. I know it’s a cliché, but I couldn’t put this book down; I read it in a single night. I’ve read lots of fiction books this year that I don’t recommend, but The Help is a shining exception.

On Reading

How Reading Changed My Life, Anna Quindlen

In this short but insightful book, novelist and former Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen describes her love affair with reading with enthralling accuracy. “Reading has always been my home, my sustenance, my great invincible companion,” she explains. “I did not read from a sense of superiority, or advancement, or even learning. I read because I loved it more than any activity on earth.” As someone who definitely relates to this kind of fanatical “book love,” I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was inspired to read several of the books on the recommended reading list Quindlen provides for fellow bibliophiles.

Reading Is Believing: The Christian Faith through Literature and Film, David S. Cunningham
In this engaging look at faith and culture, David Cunningham helps readers understand how a Christian reading of novels and movies leads to a deeper, more precise and experiential knowledge of faith. Cunningham examines such classics as Dickens’s Hard Times and Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale to modern books (Tori Morrison’s Beloved) and movies (Dead Man Walking). As a Christian who enjoys reading widely (not just “Christian” books), I appreciated Cunningham’s ability to recognize and communicate God’s truth as revealed in popular culture.

On Writing

The Hero’s 2 Journeys, Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler (CD set)

As a book editor, I’m often asked, “How do you know what to change in a book? Do you just fix typos?” Oh my, no. It’s much more than typos, I explain. It’s more like listening to a symphony and hearing notes that are dissonant, out of place. Sometimes you can just fix a note or two; other times you have to reorganize an entire movement so that the melody ring through more effectively. But when I listened to The Hero’s 2 Journeys (okay, it’s a CD set, not a book), I realized the authors were describing in detail what I had been doing by instinct all these years. Though these lectures focus on writing screenplays, Hauge and Vogler lay out a template for storytelling that applies to writers of all genres. If you are, or ever plan to be, a writer, I strongly recommend listening to this writer’s workshop. I promise, your editor will be grateful you did!

The Art and Craft of Storytelling: A Comprehensive Guide to Classic Writing Techniques, Nancy Lamb

“Storytelling is an art. But it is also a craft.” So says Nancy Lamb, encouraging writers not only to use their instinct, but to develop the skills and technique required to create an effective story. As an editor, I love this: “Storytelling rules aren’t restrictions. In fact, a basic understanding of the rules frees you to do your job as a writer.” (And all the editors in the room said, AMEN!) Whether you’re a published author or an aspiring one, this book will help you refine the art—and craft—of storytelling.

The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises, James Scott Bell

This little red book is a battle plan to achieving publishing victory. Drawing humorous and insightful parallels from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, novelist James Scott Bell lays out tactics ranging from developing ideas, building characters, and crafting dazzling dialogue… to battling self-doubts, coping with unrealistic expectations, and dealing with rejection. With short, pithy chapters, this book is easy to read, full of practical insights, and well worth your time.

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