I count the following favorite titles (out of a total ~100 read in 2022) as gifts—glimpses of grace that broke through the fortress of fog around my mind and somehow succeeded in offering me tiny oases amid madness.
Perhaps you’ll resonate with something here that inspires your next read!
*Some of these words are taken from my Goodreads reviews, written throughout the year.
Almond | Sohn Won-Pyung (trans. Sandy Joosun Lee)
I was pleasantly surprised by this story. An easier read than most but nonetheless profound, the wholesome narrative seamlessly shifts between terror and warmth. It provides just enough breathing space, like letting you pause for a sip of tea in the middle of an intense conversation. The first-person POV is informal without being distracting, as the narrator takes himself and his community very seriously. There’s a certain tenderness to the way the stories are told and unfold, an undercurrent of gentle respect that I don’t often find in most American or European novels. (I encountered something similar in a translation of The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa.) Very grateful to be filling my shelves, slowly but surely, with more Asian and Asian American authors who use beauty (both its presence and its sorrowful lack) as their softest yet strongest weapon for truth telling.
A Tale of Two Cities | Charles Dickens
This year brought yet another major move for me, so reading about two cities seemed appropriate. One of those titles I somehow missed during my formal schooling. For what it’s worth, I usually skim court scenes in classic literature, but these were fascinating enough that I read them all the way through.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall | Anne Brontë
A woman living alone, making her own way in the world, and generally being a
nuisance mystery? Sign me up. I can’t say I was entirely satisfied by the ending, but that isn’t really the point for these social-stereotype-shifting reads.
Flights | Olga Tokarczuk
This is a close contender for my all-time favorite read of the year. Flights contains straight up beautiful language that depicts exactly the kind of headspace and liminal place I’ve been in for the past couple years: restless yet with the desire to settle, to be grounded, to build a home. It is a novel in collage of experience, poetry of prose, study of character, meandering of philosophy, fragmented wholes of storytelling. I’m stunned by the ways each story becomes conscious of writing without the language itself becoming self-conscious, tracing similarities between writing and preservation, museum and memory, pilgrimage and pondering.
Hannah Coulter and Andy Catlett | Wendell Berry
Berry’s prose consistently feels like coming home.
Cannery Row | John Steinbeck
I always leave a Steinbeck novel or short story feeling simultaneously disturbed and in awe. Something about the brevity of his sentences makes the punches of social ill and unapologetic language that much more paralyzing, like you just can’t be the same afterward.
When You Reach Me | Rebecca Stead
This book is marketed mainly for middle school readers, but it was very enjoyable to read as an adult—equal parts spooky and whimsical. It centers around Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and the tenderly thin place where imagination meets reality in the life of a child.
Present Tense Machine | Gunnhild Øyehaug
It’s been a long time since I read a book that gripped at that mysterious ache in my chest and then quietly let me go at the end to shed my tears in silence.
Considering how I have often felt that there is another Eliana living in an alternate universe, with different callings and delights and sorrows, that sometimes there are gaps in my own universe that indicate missing pieces of my being, that the language we use to describe this being makes all the difference, and that she and I inexplicably overlap when it matters most, Present Tense Machine was an unexpectedly comforting read in the last week of December.
On a literary level, I am impressed at this unconventional yet distinctly modernist take on magical realism, at least from the very little I understand about forms. I’m not usually the greatest fan of any contemporary stab at stream-of-consciousness, but this is well-done and well-balanced. And bearing in mind the complexity of reading a text in translation, I am even more intrigued by what the author has accomplished here.
Also, there are references to Anne Carson’s work, Anton Chekhov’s short stories, and Interstellar so, really, what’s not to like?
Bub: Essays from Just North of Nashville | Drew Bratcher
I had the distinct privilege of studying with Drew throughout my undergraduate years. Even post-graduation, I carry a deep well of respect and gratitude for this mentor and professor who taught me much of what I know in the way of writing and being. When I texted to share that my copy had arrived, he replied, “I really do hope it inspires you to tell some stories of your own.” Whatever lies ahead, his impact is indelible, and I earnestly pray that his words and this book touch still more lives, breathing fresh delight into the worn lungs of writers wrestling to look up, look out, and love well.
When Breath Becomes Air | Paul Kalanithi
Words truly cannot convey the tragic beauty of this memoir.
What Are We Doing Here? | Marilynne Robinson
Nothing like a good dose of Robinson to satisfy one’s academic yearnings in literature, history, political science, philosophy, and theology on this side of school. My favorites in terms of intellectual challenge and my particular interests in art, scholarship, and virtue were as follows: “Beauty and Grace,” “The Beautiful Changes,” “Our Public Conversation,” and “Considering the Theological Virtues.”
Fractured Faith | Lina Abujamra
My shifting landscape of grief had a very different cause than Abujamra’s, but her words met me in a place I didn’t even know I needed to be met in. I have waged bloody battle with the Lord over what it means to forgive when the wounds of other run so damn deep, and Abujamra addresses biblical forgiveness in a way that shifted my entire world. In short, if we truly believe that Jesus paid all debts, between humans and God and between humans themselves, who are we to hold our fellow sinner in debt against ourselves? I will absolutely be returning to this book, and I remain astonished at how God used Abujamra’s words on healing to usher yet more gift into my undeserving, bumbling heart.
The God of the Garden | Andrew Peterson
Similar to my sentiments in response to Peterson’s earlier title, Adorning the Dark, it is uncanny to encounter a soul whose way of being in, moving through, and relating to the world both earth-side and heaven-ward is so much like mine. Like rummaging among the contents of my own heart through the battle-worn courage of another’s. Edifying, to say the least.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean | Joan Didion
The day Didion died, in December of 2021, I wept intermittently the entire day. I never thought an author’s death could shake me, but her passing left a gaping hole in the universe. This was the woman who redefined new journalism, whose words tell me and so many others that what we love is worth writing about.
Aggressively Happy | Joy Clarkson
I ordered this book almost as soon as it was released, mainly a result of Twitter peer pressure but also because of the whimsical cover. (To my profound disappointment, the stars are not glow-in-the-dark… I did check…) So into the cart it went, despite the terribly cliché, overly general marketing descriptions.
But when I plucked it off my shelf, I immediately built up the usual walls of cynicism. Maybe the cover was too whimsical. Maybe I would be shamed for my depression. Maybe this would be the equivalent of an overbearing extrovert telling an introvert (who loves people, usually, but has a small social tank) to get out there more. Maybe this would be happiness overload and I would be unable to connect with the text, instead wind up feeling alienated and even more cynical than before.
Blessedly, none of those things happened. What I found instead was a rich, honest, beautiful text woven through with witty, vulnerable narrative and solid biblical truths. All those walls I’d secured in preparation for defense came crumbling down (though it took a couple chapters before I fully gave in). In God’s mercy, I felt seen and understood even as I was challenged and called out for some of the unhealthy, idolatrous thought patterns or fears I wallow in on a day-to-day basis. Clarkson is an astute scholar of theology and the human condition, and her knowledge of arts & culture was particularly helpful for me in grasping her analogies / premises. Based on her taste in music and literature, I feel like we’d be great pals, even though I do prefer spicy teas over sweet ones.
Educated | Tara Westover
This memoir MOVES—artful and honest and brutal and real, a reader can’t possibly be the same before and after.
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction | Alan Jacobs
I felt completely called out and challenged as well as utterly affirmed while reading this book. I think that’s a sign of a good conversation. An excellent, charitable, well-researched, and well-written work. Highly recommend no matter what type of reader you are.
Blue Like Jazz | Donald Miller
Don’t read this like you’d read a theologian like James Montgomery Boice. Do read this like you would any well-crafted memoir or essay collection: for its honest anecdotes, hidden gems, witty storytelling, and blunt insights that many in evangelical circles would do well to heed once measured against Scripture. As with any book on spirituality, read with discernment, pen at the ready to wrestle through arguments, beliefs, and questions. This man’s words made me stop and think and grapple. That’s worth something.
Brute | Emily Skaja
These poems are drenched in terrifying year-of-the-tiger energy and I am very here for it. I made a hefty number of life-changing decisions this year (gotta take advantage of that lucky lunar energy, ya know?) and I wouldn’t be all that surprised if this collection, among others, mystically bolstered my courage in that regard.
Winter Recipes From the Collective | Louise Glück
If you know ANYTHING about me, you won’t be surprised to know I screamed when I discovered Glück had a new collection out, while wandering around Elliot Bay Book Co. I read a library copy and then loved it so much I bought a new copy to keep forever.
Water & Salt | Lena Khalaf Tuffaha
I am utterly unequipped and unqualified to write a review of these astonishing poems other than: Please, everyone must read these. Even if you’re not a poetry person. I will literally buy you a copy or lend you my own (if you promise to take good care of it). Easily an all-time favorite. The vivid way Tuffaha crafts images, sounds, meaning, and prayer is unmatched.
House of Light and Blue Horses | Mary Oliver
For the first, I took inspiration from Mattea’s review and imagined myself sitting across from Oliver before a fire, steaming mugs of tea in hand, listening to her stories of encounter and miracle. A wonderful chat. For the second, my heart just aches and aches and aches at the edges.
Bright Dead Things | Ada Limón
Sonically stunning, consistently captivating. Limón is an absolute genius of last lines that slowly burn and give you pause to think, even if you don’t know what you’re thinking about. So many of these poems knocked the breath right out of my lungs and demanded multiple readings, which puts them among my favorite individual poems. The white space may or may not be littered with my marginalia containing no small amount of… language… so aggressively did poems in the first section mess with my emotions. And while I did not resonate so deeply with every section, I think I can objectively provide the four-star rating to the collection as a whole for Limón’s mastery of the line and the musical qualities of contemporary poetry.
Every Riven Thing | Christian Wiman
I always learn a great deal about the possibilities and reaches of language construction from Wiman, for which I am grateful.
Evening Train | Denise Levertov
After reading, I felt as if someone had seized my insides and rearranged them. Also the last poem—after all the tension of the collection as a whole (which works really, really well)—left me breathless in awe of the Lord.
Vita Nova | Louise Glück
Well. She clearly placed secret cameras around my heart.
A Short History of the Shadow | Charles Wright
Diving into the Wreck | Adrienne Rich
I kept having to put the words down. I was so overwhelmed, laughing at myself in the pain of recognition. Do you ever flinch at how the page masquerades as a mirror?
What were some of your favorite reads from the year? I’d to love hear about them! Thank you for being here. Cheering for you as we turn the corner into a new year, whatever may come.
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