I’ve been watching all the major book publications posting their best books of 2021. Well, I could immodestly say I’ve saved the best for last. Actually, it’s more the case that I like getting pretty near the end of the year to post my best books list. I don’t want to miss one!
My list reflects books I’ve actually read and reviewed during 2021. Most but not all have been published this year. I’m sure there are other great books out there–I just haven’t read them. So without further ado, here are my selections:
Best book of the year.
The Code Breaker, Walter Isaacson. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021. Isaacson not only chronicles the life of this Nobel Prize winning scientist, but also what may be one of the most revolutionary discoveries and subsequent applications in the early part of the twenty-first century. He captures the work of research scientists, both the collaboration and the rivalries, and the nature of the research they do. Isaacson even gets into the lab and works with CRISPR technology. Review
Best history book.
We the Fallen People, Robert Tracy McKenzie. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021. This work traces the changing assumptions about human nature, from human fallenness to inherent human goodness between the time of the American founders and the present, and how this shift took place and the possible implications. I discovered that we often misquote de Tocqueville, and really ought to read him! Review
A Burning in My Bones, Winn Collier. New York: WaterBrook, 2021. Eugene Peterson is one of my heroes. His writings challenged me to cultivate a deeper spiritual life and integrity in ministry. Winn Collier is his authorized biographer, curating his papers and interviewing Peterson during his life. His account is honest, revealing his struggles as well as his strengths. Review
World of Wonders, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2020. The author’s essays on everything from catalpas to corpse flowers are stunningly written, capturing her own wonder and inviting us to join her. Review
Best Regional Work.
40 Patchtown, Damian Dressick. Huron, Ohio: Bottom Dog Press, 2020. I grew up in eastern Ohio, and our family histories have connections to coal mining around Johnstown, PA. Dressick captures in novel form the grinding conflict between mine owners and miners in the coal strike of 1922. Review
Best new writer.
Swimming to the Top of The Tide, Patricia Hanlon. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2021. Patricia Hanlon is an artist living north of Boston who combines personal memoir and ecological writing, painting with words what it was like for her and her husband to swim the estuary waters of the Great Tidal Marsh, floating upstream as the tide came in and back down as tides receded, through much of a year. Review
Iona: New and Selected Poetry. Kenneth Steven. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021. I’ve loved reading about Iona and its abbey, founded by St. Columba. It is often spoken of as a “thin place” where the veil between earth and heaven seems particularly thin. Steven’s poetry captures both the physical space and his own spiritual encounters on Iona with a kind of rugged beauty befitting the place. Review
Best Children’s Book.
Saint Nicholas the Giftgiver, Retold and Illustrated by Ned Bustard. Downers Grove: IVP Kids, 2021. I loved this retelling of the story of the real Saint Nicholas of Myra, a generous man and also zealous for the truth. Bustard, in his delightful woodcuts, refrains from showing us Nicholas actually punching Arius, capturing an angry Nicholas in the act of lunging toward a smug Arius. This could become a family favorite! Review
Best Literary Fiction.
The Four Winds, Kristen Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2021. I wrote in my review: “Kristin Hannah has done it again. Written a book that gets inside your head, grips your heart and does not let go. In my mind, this one holds its own with The Grapes of Wrath, both in capturing the conditions of the Dust Bowl and the migrant camps in California, and in its lead character, Elsa Martinelli, who holds her own with Tom Joad.” Review
As you know, I also review a number of books that might be characterized as “religious.” I’ll highlight a few of my “bests” in this area, but feel free to skip this if it is not of interest to you.
Majority World Theology: Christian Doctrine in Global Context, Edited by Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue, and K. K. Yeo. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. This is a landmark book in representing a shift from theology being written only by those from Europe or North America to listening to scholars from the global south and east, where the bulk of the world’s Christians live. Review
Best Biblical Studies.
Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. This opened my eyes to understand something of what it is like to read scripture with the Black church. While I cannot read scripture while black, I can learn from their readings and allow them to challenge and refine my own. Review
Best Practical Theology.
Good Works: Hospitality and Faithful Discipleship, Keith Wasserman, Christine D. Pohl. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2021. Wasserman and Pohl describe the development of a ministry of hospitality and discipleship with the homeless of Appalachian southeast Ohio. I found striking the emphases on worship and thorough-going integrity in every aspect of the work. Review
Best Formational Work.
Prayer in the Night, Tish Harrison Warren. Downers Grove: IVP Formatio, 2021. This book coincided with my discovery of one of the most beautiful compline prayers in the Book of Common Prayer. Warren, an Anglican priest takes us through this prayer, phrase by phrase, weaving spiritual insight and her own experiences into an account that deeply enriched my use of this prayer in my own devotional life. Review
Perhaps this might suggest some books you’d like to explore or gift. For me, it was a chance to look back at a year’s reading. While I also love reading older works, I’m impressed that we have writers producing works of depth, beauty, and, I believe, lasting worth in our own time. It also encourages me to look with anticipation to what wonderful works I’ll encounter in 2022!