Best Books 2021

I’ve been (mostly) keeping track of my books this year, which is a feat for me. Here are some of the standouts from my list. 

Best Re-read/Best Audiobook: 
The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt

This is a favorite in our house and finally our youngest started seventh grade and it was time to share it with her. I decided to try it as an audio book this year and I’m so glad I did. We listened to it for free on the Hoopla App. The narrator of this book has a distinct voice and Joel Johnstone, who read the audio book, got every expression and turn of phrase just right. This is a story that transcends its genre and can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike.

Best Memoir:
The Story of A Face by Sarah Ruhl

Ruhl tells the story of developing Bells Palsy after she delivers her twins. It turns out she did not have a temporary case, instead it became a chronic issue that affected all aspects of her life. Since I’ve been on my own health journey for four years, I resonated with her struggle and appreciated her vulnerable and honest telling of it. Ruhl is also a playwright and my degree is in theater, so there was an extra layer of interest for me as she shared her theater world with her reader as well. I first discovered Ruhl with her book Letters from Max: A Poet, a Teacher, a Friendship, which chronicles the correspondence and friendship between Ruhl and her playwright student Max over four years, with the ups and downs of creativity and his declining health.

Best Spiritual (Christian) Writing:
Hope Heals: A True Story of Overwhelming Loss and Overcoming Love by Jay and Katherine Wolfe and No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) by Kate Bowler

These two hard stories are told in quite different tones because they are told by two very different viewpoints. I didn’t take great notes as I read these books and honestly it’s a compliment to them both. It means I was too immersed in their stories. The following is a quote from Hope Heals. 

“Perhaps in the breaking we can find the healing we long for.” Hope heals, page 74

This is a truth I can embrace from my own story. Over and over again in my life, I’ve seen God show up in the darkest of times and infuse more of his light in my heart. 
The message that stands out to me from Kate Bowler’s book (and her podcast) is that we don’t always have to be living our best life. We don’t always have to make meaning from our struggles.

“Sometimes the body is a weight pulling you all the way down. And it’s hard to love the stone that drowns you.” Kate Bowler, No Cure for Being Human

Her honesty makes me feel less alone. In many ways, I need the messages from both of these books. I need the call to see God deeply at work in my life and I need the invitation and reminder to stop striving all the time.

Bonus: Prayers in the Night by Tish Harrison Warren

“The shape of our prayers determines the shape of our lives.”

Prayer in the night, 149

Best Opportunity to Cross Off Another Book from the Classics List:

The Brother’s Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I read this along with my eighteen-year-old daughter as part of her senior year of literature. Actually, I listened it to it, and without the compelling audiobook and the commitment I made to my daughter, I wouldn’t have stayed the course. It’s a book I’ve always wanted to finish and I’m glad I did.  But I doubt I will ever read it again. I’m not afraid of long books or hard books, in the past I’ve taken on Anna Karenina and the unabridged Les Miserables. And I understand and respect that many people name this as their Favorite Book Ever. For me the characters were too big, the emotions too extreme. All of them seemed bi-polar and that made it hard for me to relate and empathize with any of them. I wish the author had let the characters and the plot carry the themes without having long discourses that took us out of the story completely. I’m glad to check it off my list but I consider it more of an accomplishment than an enjoyable journey.

Most Creatively Inspiring: 

Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today by Bryan Doerries

Remember you are not alone in this room — and you are not alone across time.” I stumbled upon Brian Doerries through the On Being Podcast this year. After hearing his thoughts on how theater can engage the world and offer comfort, empathy, and voice to those who are hurting, I wanted to know more. In his book, he shares his personal story of caring for the woman he loved until she died and then eventually finding a path with the Greek tragedies to build a bridge with for other people and their pain. His work reaches veterans of war, frontline workers during the Pandemic, prisoners and more. He’s found a way to continue his work online over the past year. My passion for theater began over twenty-years ago when I saw that theater could make a difference in people’s lives. Doerries is doing just that.

Best Juvenile Fiction: 

Shouting at the Rain by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

This is not a flashy book and yet it made both my own and my twelve-year-old daughter’s list of favorites. In this story, the main character loses a friend and gains a new one. I read it during a time that our whole family was going through friendship shifts due to the polarizing nature of politics and the pandemic this year. Bonus points that there is a platonic boy/girl relationship in this book which is rare these days and the setting for the book was the beach, a comforting and familiar setting to me. 

Best Backlist Selection of a Favorite Author: 

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

My two favorite Schmidt novels are The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now . I tried Orbiting Jupiter a year or two ago and I’ll be honest it was just too much for me. It’s a hard, hard story and it’s told from a twelve-year-old boy’s point of view, who is absorbing all the hard. Since I have a twelve-year-old right now, I found myself trying to imagine her going through what the narrator goes through in this story. I listened to it this time and once again the narrator (read by Christopher Gebauer, a different reader than The Wednesday Wars) brought this heartbreaking story to life. Sometimes we need a hard book to remind us that we aren’t alone in our pain. Maybe this is that book for you. Having read a good handful of Schmidt’s books at this point, I do wonder what hard he’s writing from in his own life.

Best Book for Physical Healing: 

The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain by John Sarno

This December marks my fourth year with chronic pain. Pain that interrupts and dictates what I’m able to do in daily life. This year I found a new take on chronic pain, first and foremost through Nicole Sach’s Podcast. Since her work is based on Dr. John Sarno’s work, I started with his book. It’s a great primer for anyone who is living with chronic pain. It changed my view on the root of physical pain and took me on a journey of understanding my pain and no longer fearing it. Without the fear to perpetuate the pain, the brain can stop viewing pain as danger and it’s then possible for the pain to lessen. Except it’s more complicated and messier than that, but it’s a beginning. It’s hope. And hope is a game changer in the world of chronic pain.

2nd Place: The Meaning of Truth: Embrace Your Truth. Create Your Life by Nicole Sachs.

3rd Place: The Way Out by Alan Gordon and Alon Ziv

Best Escape Series:

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

My criteria for a good escape series is simply this: it keeps me turning the page. These are not usually books where I’m tempted to go back and read a sentence because it’s been so beautifully expressed. These books are usually short on lyrical language and character development and big on monsters, world-building and cliff-hangers. I’m able to wonderfully compartmentalize and block out violence and other content that I’d rather forget. Bonus points for more than three books in the series. There are seven books in this series and they have served me well during a long pain flare-up. 

Book That Underwhelmed:

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

I love Doerr and I know this made so many people’s top 10 lists for the year but to me it felt like he was trying too hard to get his themes across in the different stories and timelines he put together. I didn’t end up feeling connected or invested in the characters and I think that’s because of how hard he had to work to fit the pieces together.

Book that I refused to finish:
American Gods by Neil Gaiman