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ten beautiful modern novels

Because I was an English major, I often get asked about my favorite novel, or my favorite period of literature, and I am always at a loss.   In fact, I'd say the main reason I never went to grad school for literature was that I couldn't figure out how to specialize.  I didn't want to narrow down my love.

Young Adult fiction might be my favorite. For escape I like to read YA fiction, mysteries, memoir, novels, and occasionally fantasy.  I love the classics, too.  Julius Caesar, Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, The Sound and the Fury, Notes from Underground, Things Fall Apart.  I love poetry: Rilke, John Donne, George Herbert, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Billy Collins, Sara Teasdale, W.S. Merwin, Mary Oliver.

But to get to the point: if I had to choose, now, I'd probably choose the modern (20th century) American novel.  (I just wouldn't be able to decide if I wanted to do the 1920s, the 1950s, or the 1990s.)

Here are ten great American novels. For this list I went with very recent books, all from the 20th and 21st centuries:


 1. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
2. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
4. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
5. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
6. The River Why by David James Duncan
7. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
9.Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Someone who had seen my list of nonfiction books that shaped my faith asked me on twitter yesterday if I thought that fiction could shape faith, too. I answered, "Absolutely."

Most of the books listed here have shaped my faith, my worldview, and my imagination.  The best ones always do.


ten loved memoirs

I'm loving peeking at people's bookshelves across the web this week.  My "to-read" list is getting out of hand, and the local interlibrary loan service is getting a workout.

Memoir is one of my favorite genres, and I have an especial weakness for spiritual memoir and foodie memoirs.  Here are ten memoir-ish books that I've loved.

1. The Crosswicks Journals by Madeleine L'Engle.  These three memoirs about life and writing set by Madeleine L'Engle in her ancient farmhouse are beautiful.  I remember the first, "A Circle of Quiet," inspiring me to learn how to "be" instead of "doing" all the time.
2. The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris.  I've always been fascinated by the monastic lifestyle.  Here Norris uses the structure of the liturgical year to frame her memoir and meditations inspired by three years spent living in a Benedictine monastery as an oblate. The writing is gorgeous.
3. Letters of Vincent Van Gogh  These letters, mostly written to his brother Theo, reveal Van Gogh to be a sensitive, thoughtful man of faith. I started reading this because I wanted to know how Van Gogh had gone from missionary to miners to artist to cutting off his own ear.  I kept reading them because I found a beautiful soul.
4. These Strange Ashes by Elizabeth Elliott is her account of her first year in missionary work (before she was married to Jim). At the end of the year, all of her work was destroyed, and in this book she reckons with that reality.  I read it after going through a similar experience, and it helped me immensely.
5. A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken is a memoir of love, conversion, and tragedy.  One of my favorite scenes is when Sheldon and his wife buy their first car.  They take a hammer to the front, denting it as a way to remind themselves that it's just a thing, not a god. The love story here makes for addictive reading, but so does the conversion story, which takes place in England where Vanauken and his wife are friends with C.S. Lewis.
6. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.  Kingsolver writes beautifully about a year in which her family vowed to eat only food from their own farm or raised locally.
7. Under the Tuscan Sun by Francis Mayes.  This is kind of a guilty pleasure.  Don't watch the movie, but do read the book.  My girlfriends and I read it as we traveled to Tuscany for a semester ourselves, and we called Frances Mayes our patron saint.  One weekend, in fact, we traveled the 15 km from our little convent-turned-dormitory to Cortona, and searched until we found her house.  We giggled and giggled and knocked on the door, and me her husband.  It was one of my favorite adventures.
8. Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton.  Hamilton, chef at Prune in New York, writes about her unique childhood, the unromantic work of catering, and gorgeously, gorgeously, about food and life.
9. Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott was the first conversion memoir I read that was funny and irreverent and so honest about the difficulty of the life of faith.  I love Blue Like Jazz, too, but I feel like this is the book that made Blue Like Jazz even possible, so I chose it instead.  And while we're on the subject of recent spiritual memoirs that people my age love, let's go ahead and say that I've also loved each of Lauren Winner's books (and have not yet finished her newest).
10. Surprised by Joy & A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. Lewis's conversion memoir, and his account of the grief he experienced at this wife's death, are profoundly moving and, well, perfect.
11. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (Since I've already actually listed about 15 books, I'll go ahead and add one more...) A memoir of marriage and loss, the writing is beautiful, and will make you cry.


And there are so many more...what are yours?

ten nonfiction books that shaped my faith

In chronological order of when I encountered them...

(1997-2003)
1. The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen.  My youth pastor preached a series on a weekend retreat based on this book, and I later read the book itself.  The messages were some of the most powerful I had ever heard, about God's love, about art and faith, and about myself as the older brother.
2. The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer - this book was the first I encountered that addressed the kind of existential questions about faith that I began having in high school.
3. The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris - Norris joins Madeleine L'Engle on the list of writers I would christen saints.  I love each of her books, but this was the first I found, and is probably the one that speaks most deeply to me about prayer, place, and the life of faith.
4. The Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex, and Power by Richard Foster. Money has divine properties. We can serve money as god by giving it too much power, whether by extreme thrift or by extreme greed.  This book provided a deeper way for me to understand money, sex and power than the church was giving me at the time - especially on sex, where teenagers are pretty much just told, "don't do it."
(2003-2005)
5. The Hungering Dark by Frederick Buechner.  Buecher helped me know what to do with my doubts.  He said that every day I had to ask myself if I could believe in Jesus, and that some days the answer would be no, and that was ok.
6. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider.  I have a very uncomfortable relationship with American (and my own) prosperity.  This helped me begin to understand what to do about it.
(2005-present)
7. The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard took me months to read, because I could only read about three pages at a time, and then I'd have to stop and think about it. So profound.
8. Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright.  Heaven makes so much more sense after reading this.  I wrote more about it here.
9. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Ken Bailey.  When you grow up with the Bible, it gets hard to read the stories with fresh eyes.  This book allowed me to do that, and to understand things I had never gotten before. More about him here and here.
(lifelong)
10. Daily prayer books.  For the last decade, I've done best praying with a guide.  The Book of Common Prayer, John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer, Valley of Vision, and CommonPrayer: a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals are the ones I've used most.

Have you read any of these?   What books have formed your faith the most?

ten books that shaped me in childhood

Sarah Bessey writes some of the most beautiful blog posts on the internet, don't you think?  This week she's inviting her readers to join her in posting about 10 Books a Day, and how can I resist?  Talking about books is one of my favorite things to do, and I'll take any chance I can get to peek at other people's bookshelves.

I'm going to try to chime in every day this week.  Today I'm going to highlight one book, and then list (in no particular order) the others.


I'm starting with my favorite place to start:

10 Books That Shaped Me in Childhood


1.The Betsy-Tacy Books– Not enough people have read the Betsy-Tacy books.  I read them approximately once a year when I was growing up. No other series shaped me as much as these stories of Betsy, who grew up around the turn of the century (she graduates from high school in 1910) in a small town in Minnesota.  Like Betsy, and in large part because of her, I’m a writer, a feminist, and an Episcopalian.  Like Betsy, and because of her, I thirst for travel and adventure, and love learning about other cultures.  Like Betsy, and because of her, I like to throw caroling parties, invite tons of people over on Sunday evenings, and slouch (Betsy called it the “debutante slouch”).

(Incidentally, Nora Ephron was a great fan of Betsy-Tacy books, too.  Go re-watch You’ve Got Mail.  You’ll see.)

Originally published in the 1940s, Maud Hart Lovelace's autobiographical series starts when Betsy is five years old, and Tacy moves into the house across the street. They become best friends.  There are four books about their childhood, four books about their highschool years, and two books in which Betsy travels and gets married.

This week I’ve been re-reading Betsy and the Great World.  It’s my first reading since the advent of Google, and thus the first time I’ve been able to see the Azores Islands Betsy visits, or the print of Lenbach’s Shepherd Boy that she pins on her wall.  It’s also my first reading since I went to Europe myself.
At the age of 21, Betsy travels –with a chaperone, but mostly on her own - on an ocean liner to Europe.  She lives in Munich, Venice, and London, studying languages and culture and writing stories.  She turns 22 alone in Germany.  I was 20 when I flew to Tuscany for a semester.  When it was over I traveled, with friends, and then alone, through Europe for six weeks.  I turned 21 alone in France.


2. The Narnia Books  by C.S. Lewis. Duh.  Dad read these to us before bed, and I listened to them on audio cassette, and, well, I've probably got portions memorized.

3. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. Plucky orphans, sisters, hard work, ambition. A lovely story.

4. Emily of New Moon by Lucy Maud Montgomery.  Of course I love Anne of Green Gables, but I identified even more with Emily, who was dreamy and shy where Anne was hard-headed and passionate.

5. The Oz Books - There are actually fifteen Oz books written by L. Frank Baum, and they are filled with delightful characters and worlds. We had the original hardbacks that my grandfather had bought for about a dime a piece; now you can get all fifteen for a dollar on kindle!

6. Missionary biographies - I read all kinds, but Amy Carmichael was my favorite.

7. A Wrinkle in Time - Anything by Maddy L'Engle basically makes my favorite books of all time list. She helped me think about God in new ways.

8. Nancy Drew - the original series by Carolyn Keene, written in the 1920s and 1930s.

9. Maida’s Little School by Inez Haynes Irwin.  The Maida books are sweet, and this one actually strongly shaped my philosophy of education!


10. Little Women and everything by Louisa May Alcott.  This is also free on Kindle now.


What's your favorite book from childhood?