Totally biased fave reads of 2022 (fiction)

Hi friends,

Well, it’s that time of year. The time when every magazine, newspaper, website, and blogger published their “best x books of 2022” list, like, two months ago. 

(How do you even know until the year actually ends? What about the books that get published in November and December? Are they destined to be sad and lonely forever?) 

Anyhow, I like to wait until the year is closer to actually being over. And I like to resist the urge to pretend that I know anything at all about the best books of 2022. 

But here’s what I do know. I know I read a bunch of books in 2022—some published in 2022, some published earlier. (I’m hesitant to say how many, because what does that even mean when books vary so much in length and density?) I know I liked a lot of them, but some more than others. And I know I’d love to share some of the ones I liked most with you. 

Thus, my “totally biased fave reads of 2022”!

Let’s start with fiction, and then we’ll mosey on over to nonfiction next week. 

I don’t know that I had one clear favorite fiction book this year. (Although if I did, it would probably be Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko.) I feel like it’s hard to compare, because there are so many different genres, different subject matters, different levels of seriousness. All worth reading. 

So instead of trying to rate them against each other, I’ve made up some made-up awards. The books are ordered, very imprecisely, from most heartbreaking/serious to most light/fun. 

Here we go!

  • Most heart-wrenching exploration of queer people & communities’ experiences in the 80s: Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers (Penguin Books, 2019)

Omg, this book was sad. Loved the characters and was right there with them. And it helped me understand and empathize with the people and communities impacted by the AIDS crisis in a deeper way.

  • Most epic multigenerational historical fiction with morally complex villain: Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (Grand Central Publishing, 2017)

So epic. Learned a lot about East Asian history, woven through this story about a Korean family living in Japan. Beautifully done. Especially appreciated the attention to women’s lives and experiences. And for some reason I found the main villain-ish character very delightful—not delightful in the sense of being likable or a good person, but in the sense that his complicated bad-ness was complex and interesting.

  • Most awesome first half before becoming a little more grim than I was hoping for: Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun (Tor Books, 2022)

I was so into this book for quite a while, but the last maybe-third-ish of it was…I don’t want to say disappointing, because maybe you’ll love it (and that’s great if so!), but personally I was bummed about it. But I really, really liked the early story about a cunning and gutsy girl who survives poverty to become a novice monk and then a sort of nonviolent(ish) resistance fighter against the empire.

The parts narrated by the octopus were my faves, to be honest, but the book as a whole was also delightful. Bonus points for being set in a fictional town in western Washington. If you’re looking for something a little lighter, Ken and I both enjoyed this one.

I felt like this book had some (good) messages that were laid on a little thick, but it was still a good, fun read. Lucy was my fave. 

  • Most delightfully interconnected fictional universe of the rich and famous: Everything (not a book called “Everything,” but actually all the things) by Taylor Jenkins Reid. 

I read Malibu Rising (Ballantine Books, 2021) early in the year and found it a lovely, intriguing story about the adult kids of an absentee rock-star (like he’s literally a famous musician) dad, combined with some nicely-woven-in-and-not-too-unsubtle thoughtfulness about love and family and such. So I kept going with Taylor Jenkins Reid and ended up reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (Washington Square Press, 2018), Daisy Jones & the Six (Ballantine Books, 2020), and Carrie Soto is Back (Ballantine Books, 2022). 

I enjoyed all of them and don’t think I could pick a favorite. So, if you’re looking for one to start with, you can choose whether you want to get into surfing (Malibu Rising), acting (Evelyn Hugo), music (Daisy Jones), or tennis (Carrie Soto). 

As a fun side note (not a big part of the stories, but still fun), I enjoyed that they’re all set in the same fictional universe. (As in, minor characters in one book play a large role in another.) 

Hope you enjoyed these made-up book awards! Feel free to comment or otherwise get in touch with your own—I’d love to hear what fiction you’d recommend these days.

Reflections on 20 years of friendship

A close friend from high school passed away unexpectedly in an accident the Sunday before last, and I’ve been thinking about them a lot. I sat down a few days ago and wrote what turned out to be over 5000 words of memories and reflections on their life and our friendship. 

I’ll spare you the full 5000, for reasons of both privacy and length! But I wanted to share a piece of that reflection with you all. I hope it’s a tribute to a unique and courageous life, and I hope it highlights some of the qualities my friend embodied that I aspire to.

Dear Blevins, Tanya, Tommy—

I’ve been sorting through twenty years of memories, twenty years of friendship. My mind has a hard time wrapping itself around the reality that you are gone.

I remember high school band days, you playing the flute and then the french horn, hair shoulder-length and brown before you buzzed it, dyed it blue. I remember visiting home from college and sitting on the curb outside your dad’s house in Woodridge, talking for hours. I remember camping trips, and seeing orcas in the San Juan Islands. 

I remember meeting your pet rats. I was hesitant, but you convinced me to hold the rats, to let them walk over my shoulders, climb onto my head. 

I remember when you joined the Marines and wrote long letters from Camp Pendleton in small tight handwriting. I remember you liked the discipline of boot camp, of getting in shape, of following orders and no doubt excelling at it. 

You picked up a diagnosis there: autism. They said you had flat affect. What I don’t think they told you was that, yes, you were different, but your different was wonderful. Your different made you you.

You were always noticing things no one else noticed. You were always saying things others might have been thinking but hesitated to say. You observed everything and were so spot on, so many times. 

And you were funny, so funny. So quick. Your sense of humor was about five steps ahead of the rest of us—but once we caught up, we laughed and laughed.

I remember when you biked—with all your stuff and with your big part-wolf dog Duncan in the back basket—all the way from Seattle to San Francisco. By yourself. It took you about three weeks. You were so fit that you had biked hundreds of miles pulling all that weight behind you—so much weight that I couldn’t even pedal, when I got on your bike and tried. 

I remember when you lived in a trailer without electricity out in Granite Falls, when you bathed in the river year-round. You made it through. You made it through so many hard things.

You left relationships that were not good for you. You wrestled with addiction, with your mental health. You did work on yourself, so much work. There was some healing. There were still many challenges. 

I remember how much you loved your cats, Nut and Luna. You were so good with animals, and they loved you. Your cats kept you going through the difficult times. 

Your cats also bore witness to your wedding at Rattlesnake Lake on a cold rainy Saturday in March, perched unhappily in backpacks Steph and I carried as we stood by your side as your “best men.” Your brother officiated, wearing a unicorn onesie. 

I remember when you came over and our cat Athena was there, and you took a laser pointer out of your pocket—because who doesn’t have a laser pointer at the ready at all times?—and you played with her, and she loved it more than I expected. You said, here, take the laser pointer, you should keep it. You were always generous, giving things away.

You had the best smile, but you never smiled unless you meant it. And your smiles meant so much more because of it. You never seemed to feel the need to pretend you were happy when you were not. You were never there to please or placate anyone else. You showed up as yourself, fully yourself. 

I remember the camping trips you talked about that I thought were bonkers. It’s actually better to camp in the snow, you said, because things don’t get so damp like they do if it’s in the forties and raining. I thought, both of those camping situations sound totally bonkers. You were bold. You were brave. You weren’t afraid of the elements, of being alone, of the dark woods at night. 

You were patient, in your own way. You showed up. You took people as they were. You saw people others wouldn’t have taken the time to get to know, and you saw what was amazing and wonderful and human about them. 

The word resilient doesn’t even begin to capture the essence of who you were. There were so many things that could have broken you but did not. 

Life held so much pain for you. And you made art. You made friendships. You made a home for your cats. You made space for people to be who we are. You made room for honesty. You were dealt a difficult hand, and you put in so much work to bring life out of it. 

I’ve never known anyone quite like you. You were utterly unique. It wasn’t always easy to be your friend, but it was rewarding. It was an honor I will carry with me the rest of my life. 

I treasure our time together and trust that you are now in a place of peace like this world never quite was for you. I trust you know more fully than you’ve ever known before that you are loved. 

I think you would have been the absolute last person to call yourself a saint—I think you would have laughed at that!—but I thought of you when my pastor at church was talking about All Saints Day, about remembering those who are no longer with us but who have shaped us deeply, shaped the way we think about and move in this world, formed us into who we are. You are one of those people for me. Thank you for being so unapologetically you.

Public property, 73%, centering, and quickening: four brief thoughts on abortion

You may not be surprised to hear that, over the last few days—like much of the U.S.—I’ve been thinking about abortion. Sometimes I see people—mostly Christians—say that they feel like they “need” to weigh in. I don’t really feel that need. 

Part of it is that I generally don’t feel the need to weigh in on anything right away. My first reaction is usually not the best-thought-out one, and I would rather stew for a while and then hopefully say something more thoughtful if or when I have something to say. 

I also don’t really want to play into the news/media/outrage cycle that tends to happen. Often an issue gets a lot of attention for a few days, but really it’s a long-term, long-standing thing. And there are lots of people who have devoted many years of their lives to it. I’d rather listen to those people—the experts on a given topic, those who are committing their time and energy beyond the two days when it’s trending and at the forefront of everyone’s mind—than feel the need for everyone to speak all at once, whether or not we know much at all about it.

Basically, if I speak or write, I want to contribute to movements working to build a better world for the long haul—which often means choosing not to react spontaneously to whatever seems most egregious at the moment.

Caveats and hesitations aside, though, I’ve been thinking about abortion and the complex web of issues that come up whenever people start talking about it. And I have four brief thoughts.

1. Women’s bodies as public property

This is what I think about when I see abortion-related conversations go down. I find it kind of mind-blowing that people have so many opinions and philosophies and theologies about this thing that is so intensely intimate and personal. It’s not just an abstract topic for debate; it’s real women’s medical care, pregnancies, bodies. 

People feel so free to state their opinions to anyone who might listen and many who will not. This is a reminder, to me, of how women’s bodies are often treated as public property. 

I believe Paula Stone Williams writes about this in As a Woman: What I Learned About Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy After I Transitioned. Paula is a transgender woman who reflects on how life is different for her now since transitioning in her sixties. Among many other things, once she transitioned, she noticed that people feel free to comment on her appearance in a way they didn’t feel free when they saw her as a man. She felt as if her body, for the first time, was considered public property.

Would people feel the need to state their opinions on difficult health care decisions—not to mention related topics of pregnancy risks, and rape and incest, and teen pregnancy, and that sort of thing—if it were primarily a conversation about men’s bodies? It’s kind of hard to imagine. What men can or can’t do tends to be seen as their own decision. 

So I guess I generally feel like it should feel more uncomfortable to talk about abortion than it is. And when we do talk about it, I would love to hear more respect for the privacy, autonomy, and agency of every woman who has had to make difficult pregnancy choices. 

There’s something a little dehumanizing when this sensitivity is lacking—something a little disturbing about how everyone feels the need to weigh in with opinions that are often more intellectual than personal, more overly generalized than sensitive to individuals’ needs, highly ideological and not nearly nuanced enough to take into account all the complexities life and pregnancy and birth and parenthood hold. 

2. 73% of Americans care about my life

I’ve been sitting with a statistic I saw the other day: “73% of Americans say abortion should be legal if the woman’s life or health is endangered by the pregnancy” (see full Pew Research article).

(To be fair, only 11% say it should be illegal in that case—but I’m also not super happy with the 14% who say “it depends.” I’m not at all sure I want people looking at each individual woman to decide whether her life matters—and when people do that, it’s hard to imagine that things like race and socioeconomic status wouldn’t come into play.)

73%. What this statistic makes me feel is that if I were pregnant, and if there were complications such that my life were at risk, less than three out of every four people I meet in daily life or shop with at the grocery store feel quite sure that they would want my life to be saved. That doesn’t feel very good. 

I think of the psalmist’s lament: no one is concerned for me; no one cares for my life (Psalm 142:4). I’m sitting with this—for myself as a woman, and also, especially, in solidarity with women who have experienced real danger in pregnancy.

3. Center those most impacted

This is something we’ve learned from various social justice movements. Why would it be any different when it comes to conversations about abortion?

I remember the time, back when I was working in college ministry, that some of the students wanted to attend an on-campus debate about abortion. So off we went to the debate. Both speakers were men. 

On the one hand, I was used to stuff like that. On the other hand, and especially in retrospect, it was kind of surreal. It didn’t make any sense. What exactly qualified these two men as experts on something that impacted other people’s bodies more than their own?

If we’re going to talk about uteruses, we have to center the voices of people who have uteruses. If we’re going to talk about pregnancy, we have to center the voices of people who have experienced pregnancy. If we’re going to talk about abortion, we have to center the voices of people who have made a difficult choice to end their pregnancy. Likewise, if we’re going to talk about various options for abortion-ban exceptions—things like rape, or incest, or risks to the mother’s life—we have to center the voices of people who have experienced these things.

I don’t want any of these people to feel like they have to speak. They get to choose whether they want to speak. But there are those who are speaking. Are the rest of us listening?

4. Quickening

In my younger and more conservative days, I used to think that since I was a Christian, I believed that life began at conception. It was all part and parcel of being a believer. 

I’ve learned, since then, that the “life begins at conception” argument is really a rather recent one. There is a long, long historical Christian tradition of people who didn’t necessarily think this way. (Alternatively, if you think there weren’t any true Christians in the world until the last half of the twentieth century…I suppose that’s a view you could take.)

I think of this fascinating article from a couple years back. Its author, Dr. Freidenfelds, is a historian who spent fifteen years researching and writing about miscarriage. Freidenfelds suggests that, in the earlier years of Christianity, people believed the soul of a baby entered the baby’s body when the mother first felt her child move in her womb—a moment known as “quickening.” 

That makes a lot of sense to me. And even if it doesn’t make sense to you, it’s an example of how Christian beliefs about souls and bodies and fetuses and life have changed dramatically over time. “Life begins at conception” is a newer idea, and it is not a statement every Christian must believe. 

Well, those are my four thoughts. I don’t really want to provoke more debate, but do feel free to share your own thoughts and feelings over these last few days—I’d love to hear.

Historical theologians and their sexism

This is from a few days ago now, but I wanted to let y’all know that I had the chance to contribute to Feminism and Religion again! The piece is called On the Baby and the Bathwater, and it’s a brief reflection on historical theologians, sexism, and my seminary experience.

There were lots of ways seminary was unnerving for me as a woman – to the point of sometimes feeling like this institution was not built for me and perhaps this religion was not built for me either. On the Baby and the Bathwater looks a little bit at one of these ways.

Feminism and Religion, by the way, is a pretty awesome website that I hadn’t heard of until relatively recently – feel free to wander around and check out some of their other posts as well. People from all sorts of different religious or spiritual traditions contribute to it, so you probably won’t agree with or relate to everything – but it’s been cool to be a part of such a rich, diverse, multi-faith place where people exchange ideas and experiences in a spirit of collaboration and peace.

I really liked yesterday’s post, for example: Calling All Biblical Wise Women. I join its writer, Rabbi Jill Hammer (PhD), in longing to see wise, thoughtful, justice-minded women rise up and bring peace in this world. (And I hope in my own small way to be one of these women.)

The Polish women leaving strollers at the border with Ukraine come to mind as one example of ordinary wise women looking to bring peace and healing in our world. What an image – and what a small, amazing thing for ordinary women to do.

That’s all I’ve got! Glad to get to contribute for a second time to a cool project (the first contribution was Women’s Speaking Justified: Reflections on Fell, Feminism, and History back in January), so check it out if you get a chance!

Lent-y reflections

Christians for Social Action posted another article of mine – I Fasted from White Authors for Lent – which is totally awesome, because Christians for Social Action is totally awesome. Check it out – it’s a brief reflection on my experience of Lent 2021.

It was fun to see this article published right after interviews with Candice Marie Benbow and Cole Arthur Riley, both of whose books (Red Lip Theology and This Here Flesh, respectively) I’m super stoked to read. (I feel a “super chill book review” or two coming…)

If you want more totally biased recommendations of awesome authors of color to read (during Lent, or anytime), feel free to return to 2021: a year in books: would totally recommend Ijeoma Oluo, Brittney Cooper, Tarana Burke, Cathy Park Hong, Imani Perry…just as a place to start.

Holler if you’ve done anything similar for Lent (or otherwise), if you’ve liked any of these authors or have other recommendations, or if you have any other thoughts!