Dec 3, 2016

My Best Books

When I first started this blog, it began with the word "A few days."  Then after delaying publication for awhile, I changed it to start with "A few months."  Now, at last ready to post, I begin with:

A few years ago my friend (and parent of two former students) Elizabeth Towns posted a request for people's list of their top ten favorite books.  I thought about it and dashed off a list of ten on my phone's ColorNote app within an hour of seeing Elizabeth's post.  I had planned to comment on her post, but never got around to transferring the list.

In the meantime,I've come to realize that there's some commentary that I'd like to add that would be longer than appropriate in a comment on a months old Facebook post.

I've always been a voracious reader, since I was a child and would read until my head hurt and I'd wake from fevered jumbled dreams of all the stories I'd be consuming in great literary gulps.

But I've never been inclined to own many books.  I typically read a book once and that's it.  There are a few that I'd read again (even though most I haven't).  The following ten books definitely meet that criteria:

The Top Ten

10.  Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin and the Race of a Life Time by Mark Halperin

This book was an absolutely fascinating read.  It's one of the few non-fiction book I've ever read that I couldn't put down.  I particularly enjoyed the window into the non-public personas of these very public figures.

9.  The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

I first read Joy Luck during Christmas break of my freshman year of college.  I guess it was just lying around the house.  I loved the multiple perspectives of the eight key characters (four mother-daughter pairs) and appreciated how Tan managed to draw those many stories together around a central theme and plot line.  I taught this book for years as 9th grade literature teacher and so have read it many times.

8.  Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder

This is another book that was a staple of my freshman students' reading list. I was encouraged to read Among Schoolchildren by my favorite English professor in college, Dr. Georgina Hill.  She knew I was contemplating a career in teaching and thought I'd find it illuminating.  I did. Kidder follows fifth grade teacher Christine Zajac for a school year and chronicles the challenges and joys of her experience. This book, now over 25 years old, is as timely as ever. More than any other book I've read, Among Schoolchildren, accurately captures the experience of being a teacher.

7.  The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

I read The Poisonwood Bible only once but it really stuck with me. It tells the story of a family of Baptist missionaries led by the severe and fanatical Nathan Price as they struggle to make a life in the Belgian Congo.  The story follows the four daughters as they grow up and deal with the consequences of their father's decisions.  I read the Poisonwood Bible while a missionary myself and found it a compelling cautionary tale of the damage that religious zealotry can do.  At the time I was also listening to Live's early 90's album Mental Jewelry and I found it to be the perfect "soundtrack" to the book, with even specific songs coincidentally seeming to match specific stories in the book.

6.  The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History was the first "contemporary" adult novel I ever read. My friend Carissa Berard (now Cotta) introduced me to the book, and while I feel like I now need to read it again to really speak on it's quality, I know that at the time I found it gripping, the characters compelling and complex.  It's on the list because I've never forgotten it.

5.  The Egyptian by Mika Waltari

During my freshman year of high school I somehow came into possession of a box-full of faux-leatherbound classics.  "A Tale of Two Cities", "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", and "The Count of Monte Cristo"--maybe a dozen all together, plus a small collection of old detective stories (Agatha Christie and similar authors).  In the same way that I typically make it my goal to read Time magazine cover to cover each week, I decided that I would take up the task of reading every book in the collection.  Many were good of course--I guess that's how they became Great Books--but my favorite was The Egyptian.  I'm not sure how it ended up in the collection as it's not a book you typically hear much about, but it was fascinating--a sprawling epic.  I felt like I learned so much about ancient Egyptian history and culture, particularly the true story of ancient Egypt's brief flirtation with monotheism under the rule of the eccentric pharaoh Akenaten .  He single handedly tried to dismantle the polythesistic worship centered around the god Amen and replace it with sole devotion to the god of the sun's disc, Aten.  Famous names from ancient Egypt like Nerfirtiti (Akenaten's queen) and King "Tut" Tutakhenamen (Akhenaten's successor) all make appearances and come to life vividly.

4. U2 at the End of the World by Bill Flanagan

As I've shared on this blog, U2 are one of the few artists I am a personal fan of (as opposed to merely a fan of their work).  For a fan, this book detailing U2's journey during the critical years of their musical reinvention culminating in the Achtung Baby album and ensuing Zoo TV world tour, is a page-turner.  Speaking as fan, I the book helped me understand and admire the band more than any other source.  Even for a non-fans, I think readers will find this book immensely readable and hard to put down as Flanagan in short, punchy chapters illuminates what it's like to be members of the biggest band in the world trying to balance their faith, artistic integrity, family and personal commitments with the demands of stardom.

3.  No Compromise: The Life Story of Keith Green by Melody Green

This was another book that I had my freshmen read during my years  teaching 9th grade English. It's not on anybody's canon, but I liked to have a mix of fiction and non-fiction on my reading list, and I wanted a biography.  This book has captured me since I first read it in the summer of  1996, on the recommendation of my friend Clari Worley.  I've read it probably a dozen times since and I never tired of it.  This true story of one remarkably gifted man's search for God and his passionate devotion once He found Him has never failed to move and inspire me.

2.  A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving

I first read this book sometime in 1998, either right before or right after we moved to Saipan.  It was like no other book I'd ever read.  Funny, insightful, deep, and deeply moving. It had a strong spiritual heart and some striking Christian symbolism, yet it was definitely not intended to be a Christian novel.  It was too edgy, too irreverent to ever fit that category (something I was reminded of when, having forgotten some of the more NSFC [Not Suitable For Church] moments in the novel, I introduced it to my first freshman literature class.  The students loved it as much as I did, but I knew it probably wouldn't be wise to keep teaching the book).  Maybe that's part of why I love the book--because it defies easy categorization and oversimplification.  I eventually read most of Irving's other books and they were good too, but none as good as A Prayer for Owen Meaney.  I haven't read the book in many years, and I'm not even sure where my copy is.  But it still officially holds the title of my Favorite Book.

1. Steps to Christ by Ellen White

This little book takes the number one spot, because it has been a touchstone of my life for many years now.  Next to the Bible, it has probably had a strongest impact on my spiritual life.  It outlines in the simplest term what it takes to come to know Jesus and enter into a saving, vibrant relationship with him.  Ellen White gets kind of a bad rap among my generation--many of us have been beaten over the head by her little red (and now little read) books growing up and find her intimidating.  But this book carries none of the "Testimonies to the Church" type counsel that can cause such consternation.  It is a simple, clear, affecting guide to knowing Jesus.  There are so many beautiful passages that make it so clear that knowing Jesus is a freeing, joyful experience. I've made it a habit to share the book (in small doses, as the 19th century language can be a little dense) with my students every other year for morning worship.  One of my goals is to help my students come to know Christ, and I can think of no better guide.

Honorable Mention: The Krakauer Effect

Jon Krakuer's books have a way of troubling my soul--in a good way I think.  This trio:

Into the Thin Air, a riveting first-person account of the disaster on the slopes of Mt. Everest in 1996 that took the lives of eight climbers.

Under the Banner of Heaven, a story of the consequences of a faith so blind that it turns violent.  This book probably shook my faith  more than anything I've ever read, but ultimately left it stronger in the end. (You can read how going through the struggle inspired me to see Abraham and Isaac in a whole new way in this very old post on my now mostly defunct Faith Journey's blog.

 and Into the Wild, a fascinating investigation into the wandering life and strange death of Chris Mcandless in the Alaskan wilderness. (You can read my review from my definitely defunct blog Maycock Media Mix here--I think the links till works.  I learned after a few years I barely have time for one blog much less three or four!)

 All three books will get under your skin, make you think, and challenge you. I highly recommend them.

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