From a very young age, reading has been one of my deepest loves. A favourite photo from my childhood is a picture of me, aged six, having fallen asleep with an open copy of The Hobbit resting against my chest. I love to be swept up in a story, transported into another world, to get lost amid pages and my vivid imagination. As an adult, this love of reading hasn’t waned (as anyone who has stood mouth agape at the overflowing bookcases and piles of books scattered around my bedroom can attest to). My choice of genre has switched from a love of fantasy in my youth to a broader fascination with contemporary and historical fiction, theology, poetry and nonfiction. This year in particular, I challenged myself to read outside of my comfort zone – to explore periods of history I knew little about and to read authors from countries far different than my own.
In 2018 (so far) I’ve read 15,680 pages across 51 books – significantly less than the 20,463 pages across 80 books that I completed last year. I’ve traveled to Nepal, Pakistan, Sweden, Nigeria, France, Ireland, England, Singapore, Germany and the US, all without catching a plane. I’ve been challenged in my understanding of the world, what shapes a person’s identity, how loss leaves irrevocable marks on one’s life, and how people endure (or fall apart) through tragedy. I’ve read books that have deepened my understanding of how to relate to God and live a life that glorifies Him in a world that rejects Him. I’ve also read my entire Bible over the course of this year, a challenging undertaking, but one that has deepened my love for God’s word and desire to share it. It’s difficult to select the books that have most challenged my thinking, but here are short reviews of the top 5 books I’ve read this year (in no particular order):
12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke (2017, Crossway Books)
“We forget how to meet God, yet we defend our smartphones, unwilling to admit that we are more concerned with controlling the mechanics of our lives than in worshiping the God whose sovereign power directs our every breath.”
There are lots of books popping up lately that address the ever-increasing role smartphones and the internet play in our daily lives. 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You isn’t anti-technology – as many of these books are – but rather, a call to think deeply about how the way we use our phones impacts our relationships with others, our view of self, and as Christians, our relationship with God. Reinke offers, as the title suggests, twelve ways smartphone use challenges our relationships and spiritual life – notably distracting us and distorting our perception of reality, encouraging superficial rather than meaningful communication, feeding our need for approval and fostering FOMO, ultimately distorting our identity. However, laced within these warnings are clearly outlined suggestions for developing self-discipline to foster a healthy relationship with our phones, in order to savor Christ and find our identity in Him. This is a book I think I’ll keep coming back to, full of wisdom I personally need in a world where I find myself constantly distracted by that buzzing block of wires and metal in my pocket.
Chasing Contentment: Trusting God in a Discontented Age by Erik Raymond (2017, Crossway Books)
“Ever since the garden of Eden the world has been discontent, and ever since then God has been pursuing people to make them content in him…”
Chasing Contentment: Trusting God in a Discontented Age is one of the clearest theological accounts of contentment I’ve read. Contentment seems like an elusive, impossible to grasp art. We live in a world consumed by the search for more, gripped by a fear of missing out. We are discontent because we are “restless, unhappy, unsatisfied and curious”…”having learned in whatever situation [we] are in to be discontent.” Yet Raymond explains how contentment is to be found in God, who made us to glorify Him, who has provided a solution in Christ for the source of our discontentment (sin). He outlines how contentment can be ours when we deny ourselves, see through the temporary pleasures of this world, live in light of God’s providence and recognise that we are not yet home. This is a book filled with wisdom, rooted in biblical truth and grounded in a deep understanding of God’s grace.
Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God by Timothy Keller (2014, Hodder & Stoughton)
“To pray is to accept that we are, and always will be, wholly dependent on God for everything.”
I’ve always loved Timothy Keller’s writing and Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God is no exception. It is a rich theological resource, drawing on the wisdom of theologians like Calvin, Luther and Augustine. The book begins with an appeal to recognise the necessity of prayer as the means of knowing God better, which “is what we must have above all if we are to face life in any circumstance”. Keller analyses various perspectives on prayer across the ages, comparing how different religions have treated prayer – an approach I haven’t encountered in other books on prayer. In doing so, he highlights how Christian prayer is unique in that we are communicating with a God who is personally involved in the lives of his people. The strength of Keller’s exploration of prayer is his use of Scripture to show how God has made himself known to us, and through Jesus, has given us the means to prayer and modeled for us how to pray. It is highly practical, academically stimulating and biblically grounded, ultimately reflecting the unique privilege we have to pray to a God who knows us intimately and hears and answers our prayers according to his perfect will.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (2014, Atria Books)
“We always think there’s enough time to do things with other people. Time to say things to them. And then something happens, and we stand there holding on to words like ‘if’…”
A Man Called Ove is by far the best novel I’ve read this year. It tells the story of Ove, the grumpy old man next door who has no tolerance for the world being anything other than what he deems it should be. As we learn more about Ove’s life and character through interactions with a colorful cast of neighbours, we realise that behind his bitter exterior is a man trying to live in the midst of overwhelming grief. Backman has painted a portrait of a complex man, portraying the pains of late life with elegance and warmth. The heart of the book are interactions between Ove and his new neighbour Parvaneh and the flashback’s to Ove’s early life and romance with his wife Sonia:
“She just smiled, said that she loved books more than anything, and started telling him excitedly what each of the ones in her lap was about. And Ove realised that he wanted to hear her talking about the things she loved for the rest of his life.”
I can’t recommend this book enough – it made me laugh and cry in a way no book has done for a while.
Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo (2017, Canongate)
“But even then, I could trap those thoughts and keep them caged in a corner of my mind, in a place where they could not spread their wings and take over my life…”
Stay With Me is a poignant, painful but beautifully written story of loss, betrayal and the unbreakable bond between mother and child. Yejide has known the pain of being motherless and unwanted from birth. Married to Akin for several years, she has not yet fallen pregnant, seen as a personal disgrace by her family and peers. When her mother-in-law arranges for her husband to marry a second wife in order to continue his family line, Yejide feels betrayed and outraged. This one act will lead to a series of choices that will have devastating impact on her marriage. Stay With Me articulates with heart wrenching clarity the pain of desperately wanting children (to the point of developing pseudocyesis) and the all-consuming nature of loss. The story is interwoven with insight into Nigerian cultural/religious beliefs and the chaotic upheaval in the political landscape of 1980s Nigeria. The final pages of the book left me with goosebumps and burgeoning tears.
Other books I’ve enjoyed this year:
Nothing In My Hand I Bring by Ray Galea (2007, Matthias Media)
Living Without Worry by Timothy S. Lane (2015, The Good Book Company)
Women and God: Hard Questions, Beautiful Truth by Kathleen Nielson (2018, The Good Book Company)
Hope Beyond Cure by David McDonald (2013, Matthias Media)
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (2018, Bonnier Publishing)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017, Bloomsbury)
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2007, Harper)
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (2017, Hogarth Press)
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017, Bloomsbury)
Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018, Crown)
Any Ordinary Day: What Happens After the Worst Day of Your Life? by Leigh Sales (2018, Penguin)
Undying: A Love Story by Michel Faber (2018, Canongate Books)
I’d love to know what your favourite books have been this year – I’m always looking for recommendations! If you’d like to see all the books I’ve read this year, check out my Goodreads reading wrap up or have a look at my bookstagram: @e_lismariereads (which I haven’t updated since August…oops!)