My big Christmas gift this year was a Kindle Fire from my mom and dad. Despite the Fire’s well-publicized flaws, I have quickly become enamored of having an e-reader. When I found myself the day after Christmas without a book to read, I just clicked on the handy link to the New York Times bestseller list, where I quickly found and purchased several books I’ve been meaning to read. Such immediate gratification, of course, came at a price. But in these post-Christmas days when I’m ignoring concerns such as budgets in favor of a generous, laid-back holiday vibe, creating a pile of books on my virtual nightstand was a real treat. Two days later, I’m deep enough into one of the books I bought to justify adding it to my list of favorite books I read in 2011.
Here, in no particular order, is that list:
- The Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee — Physician Mukherjee set out to write a memoir of his intensive year of training in cancer treatment. But the book instead became a history of cancer, a “’biography’ in the truest sense of the word—an attempt to enter the mind of this immortal illness, to understand its personality, to demystify its behavior.” I was immediately drawn into this story in which cancer, along with eccentric and brilliant physicians and researchers, play starring roles. Because I and both of my parents have undergone cancer treatment in recent years (breast cancer for me and my mom, leukemia for my dad), reading this book feels like reading the biography of someone I’ve met, offering new insights into an entity I thought I understood.
- Flunking Sainthood by Jana Riess — Riess set out to practice a different spiritual discipline (fasting, centering prayer, keeping Sabbath, etc.) every month for one year, and her accounting of this year is funny, insightful, and inspiring. The bottom line: She ran into trouble with every single discipline, but managed to learn something in spite of, or perhaps because of, her failures. One of her take-away insights is that spiritual disciplines (even those meant to be practiced in solitude, such as centering prayer) should not be undertaken alone. Community is a vital source of tools, support, and accountability necessary for maintaining disciplines. This book is a great selection for a church book study.
- The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown – I initially intended to write about this book for my now-defunct blog on reproductive ethics. But I found writing about The Boy in the Moon to be nearly impossible; reading it was such an emotional experience, and the book contains so much truth and insight, that any attempt to describe it feels insufficient. Brown writes about his significantly disabled son, Walker, who is unable to communicate with others or perform basic functions such as toileting. The question at the book’s center is whether such a life, in which the state and extent of Walker’s interior life is impossible to know, is valuable. Brown, to my great relief, rejects the cliché that people with disabilities are somehow closer to God or wiser than everyone else, or were sent here to teach us about what is really important. Brown says instead that, “I do not see the face of the Almighty in Walker. Instead, I see the face of my boy; I see what is human, and lovely and flawed at once. Walker is no saint and neither am I…I have begun simply to love him as he is, because I’ve discovered I can; because we can be who we are, weary dad and broken boy, without alteration or apology, in the here and now.”
- The Pain Chronicles by Melanie Thernstrom — As someone who lives with chronic pain, I was fascinated by this book about the history of pain and pain management. There are lots of juicy historical tidbits, about Christian theologians’ opposition to pain relief during labor because it failed to honor the curse God put on Eve and all women, for example, and accounts of surgeries performed without anesthesia. There are also many personal stories of people living with chronic pain, including Thernstrom herself. I wrote two essays based on The Pain Chronicles for the Christianity Today women’s blog, and have recommended it to many people who either live with chronic pain or are involved in treating it.
- Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese — This was, quite simply, the best story I read all year. It follows twin boys of Indian descent through their childhood in Ethiopia and eventually to America. I’ve read some criticisms of the final chapters, which do indeed stretch credulity with how neatly various circumstances come together. But I found the characters to be fully realized and sympathetic, the history of Ethiopia during its revolutionary days fascinating, and the medical details well-rendered (the author is a physician, as are several of the main characters).
- The Chosen by Chaim Potok — This fall, I decided to re-read this favorite, which I first read as a teenager. Potok follows two best friends in post-war Brooklyn from adolescence into young adulthood. Reuben is an Orthodox Jew being raised by his widowed and scholarly father, while Danny is a Hasidic Jew whose father is a revered rabbi. Despite their shared faith and geographic proximity, the boys are growing up in two different worlds and theirs is a risky friendship. Danny is expected to take over his father’s leadership of their Hasidic congregation, but intends instead to become a psychologist. He is not only defying his father’s plans for him, but also studying subjects and authors, such as Freud, that are considered blasphemous in his community. The conclusion is a heartbreaking and hopeful portrait of a father’s love for his son, as Danny finally discovers what inspired his father to raise him within the fierce constraints that made his coming of age so fraught.
What were your favorite books of 2011? Let me know in the comments…I need help deciding what to buy for my new Kindle before January 1 arrives and I go back to tracking expenses and sticking to a budget!