2020 Book Review

2020 Book Review

I made a New Years’ resolution to read/listen to at least 30 books in 2020. I definitely accomplished this goal! I love listening to audiobooks on my 35 minute drive to/from work so that helps me fly through books. And then when quarantine hit, well that just opened up even more free time for reading.

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Religion/Philosophy Books

The Catholic Journaling Bible

I am not about to rate the Bible lol but this is the one I’ve been using this year (I got it for Christmas, thanks mom!). I had the brilliant idea to go through all the readings for the Catholic Mass (Years A, B, & C) and highlight in this Bible, according to the liturgical colors, no less, where our readings come from. Why in the world would I bother to do this you might ask? Well, I got sick and tired of hearing Protestants say that Catholics don’t read the Bible. In case y’all didn’t know, ALL the readings at Mass come from all parts of the Old Testament, New Testament letters, and the Gospels. I figured this Bible would colorfully show how much of the Bible Catholics actually read if they only go to mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. And let me tell you: it’s a lot.

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary: Unveiling the Mother of the Messiah by Brant Pitre

This book was given to us for FREE by our church (I love that they do this every year!) and it totally changed my Catholic world. It never bothered me how the Catholic Church venerated the Virgin Mary but it seems to really bother Protestants. . .like a lot. I have a very good grasp of the Church’s teachings but sometimes I was at a loss for words with Mary. This book, written by a cradle Catholic who fell away then came back to the Church, explained every aspect of Catholic doctrine with the Virgin. I especially loved that he used so much Protestant literature to showcase her special role in Christianity. I HIGHLY recommend this book to ANY Christian wanting to better understand the Catholic position. Message me if you want to borrow it – seriously!

Read more: Catholic Culture: Immaculate Conception & Veiling

Every Sacred Sunday Mass Journal: 2019-2020

This is more of a study than a “book” but I read it so it counts! The book takes the Catholic readings for the mass and adds journaling space. This has literally been my most transformative weekly religious practice because a) I love researching and breaking down Bible passages and b) if I cannot make it to mass for some unforeseen reason I can still *get* part of the experience (which was very useful when churches closed during the pandemic).

The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (audiobook)

I love the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, because he is such a beacon for peace and balance in our crazy world. Buddhism is an interesting “religion” (there’s a reason for the quotes, I should probably write a blog post on that! lol) that can transform itself better than other more doctrine-based faiths. This book, narrated by Richard Gere (who is a Buddhist by the way!), is not meant to be a religious OR scientific book but a philosophical one about the convergence of two of our world’s greatest influences. Great read for the spiritually curious and academically minded.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” by Rachel Evans

This book was recommended by a fabulous friend of mine, it combines two of my favorite topics: religion and feminism. I did not actually learn a lot about Biblical women from the book, I like to read about them quite a bit, but I did learn an incredible amount of information about the anti-women undercurrents of Southern Protestant denominations (if you belong to this group please not I do not mean all churches of these region/denomination are anti-women, just that many have overt or subtle sexist language). The book was an incredible and funny read that was very informative. But don’t worry, I have no interest in “calling my husband ‘master'” however I do already cover my head for mass. lol

Read more: Feminism in a Skirt

Lent and Easter: Wisdom from Fulton J. Sheen by Blessed Fulton Sheen

In my head this isn’t a “real book” because the idea is to read a section a day because it corresponds with different reflections during Lent and Easter. I was very bad at keeping to one a day and somehow always seemed to miss a day so I was on a healthy two-every-other-day regimen, but I got through all the days AND enjoyed it. I tried a similar book during Advent & Christmas but never got past mid-December. Maybe it’s because that time of year is so hectic and I put the book on the fireplace mantle that I just totally forgot. Instead, I put this book on my nightstand and *tried* to read the short passage before going to bed.

Read more: Catholic Culture: 2020 Ash Wednesday & Lent

The Szyk Haggadah by Arthur Szyk

I bought this for a friend as a Passover gift and, of course, I had to read it first (that’s how I do gifts). This was NOT the type of book I thought I had bought. . .or maybe it was and I just didn’t realize it? I thought I had bought a full length Haggadah (the book used to go through the Passover meal); while this book did go through many of the prayers and events, it seemed more of a partial Haggadah with an academic explanation. Again, maybe I misunderstood what a Haggadah actually was sooo. . .don’t take my word for it. However, it was a GREAT read & the pictures are to die for. The artist, Arthur Szyk, is actually the reason I bought the book in the first place. I heard a wonderful lecture on his art while at my Teaching the Holocaust through Visual Culture Summer Institute.

Read moreLesson Plan: Jewish Narrative & Illuminated Manuscripts

I Like Being Catholic: Treasured Traditions, Rituals, and Stories

Not what I was expecting (maybe I should should expecting things when I pick up books) but it was a cute and a light read. Perfect for the two afternoons I spent on the hammock reading it. This book is a collection of short (very short) essays on different people’s take on Catholic culture, not theology or philosophy, but the day-to-day weird Catholic stuff. I didn’t learn anything really new (EXCEPT about this cool Catholic monk who lived in India named Bede Griffiths), it mostly reaffirmed why I like being Catholic. 🙂

Read more: Catholic Culture: Liturgical Living

Religion in the Handmaid’s Tale: A Brief Guide by Colette Tennant

Sorry to the author, but the writing was crappy – like super elementary and repetitive, but the content was great. Just like when I read The Red Tent, I had my Bible out next to me the whole time reading passages, making notes and connections that I have never seen before. I bought this as a gift for a friend (notice a theme here. . .lol) and read it ahead of time. I love the literary beauty of the disgusting twist of religion in the dystopia Gilead portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale and this book illuminated other subtle uses of pseudo-Christian religion that I missed the first time around.

Understanding the Mass: 100 Questions 100 Answers by Mike Aquilina

Ironically I read this book during COVID-19 quarantine time when we could not go to mass so I guess it was a nice way to still connect to the mass even without it. I didn’t learn a lot of new stuff, not surprisingly being a cradle Catholic and all, but it was a nice refresher. I actually bought this book for a friend who is a recent convert to the faith because she was still having a hard time understanding the mass. I was hoping that this book’s Q&A style would be easily digestible and I thought it was.

The Habit: A History of the Clothing of Catholic Nuns by Elizabeth Kuhns (Kindle ebook)

Somehow I got $5 in FREE Kindle credit (idk) so I used it to buy this ebook. I am obsessed with nuns, not surprising when you know I love religion and feminism. This book went deep into the clothing of all sorts of orders of nuns I had never heard of and explored their history and changing purposes and habits over time. This is a book that is super niche but it was just what I was looking for!

The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts by Karen Armstrong (audiobook)

This was a truly, truly global view on the concept of scripture/text in a variety of religions. So thankful it was not a Christian text just commenting on how other religions are beneath their great tradition. I have never learned so much about Daoist & Confucian text nor how different Christian groups have used text over time. The book literally went through the history of scriptural text since the beginning of righting up until the 20th century. The one thing I wish she addressed was the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon’s) relationship to scripture because, well I find it odd and really don’t understand it at all. But alas, I can always find another book to address that. I will definitely be reading more from this author in the future!

Read more: Learning not Converting

Catholic Customs & Traditions: A Popular Guide by Greg Dues

Oooo this book is my perfect sweet spot: the kooky history of Catholic traditions. The author, in short sections, went through the history of how things have developed over time in the 2,000 of Christian/Catholic tradition. One of my biggest takeaways from this book was that there has never been one way to be a Catholic, there is nothing that has not changed over time. We are human, and religions are human creations – they evolve and change over time to meet new needs and new problems.

Seasons of Celebration: Meditations on the Cycle of Liturgical Feasts by Thomas Merton

I read this book in spurts (still finishing it to be exact). Each chapter is a seperate essay by Thomas Merton and the mood would sometimes cover over me to pick up the book and turn to a new chapter. This book was not about what I thought it was going to be about but it was deeper and more spiritual. Honestly, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it but it met me where I was this year.

*Note: I got this book from

Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say About You-Know-What by Maggie Anton

Well this book is exactly what it sounds like. Fifty short paragraphs about what the Talmud says about sex and sexuality. I don’t know that I would officially recommend it to others because you really have to be niche to find this entertaining, but it is hilarious!!!

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet  by Lyndal Roper (audiobook)

I figured October (while teaching the Protestant Reformation no less!) would be perfect timing for a book on this (in)famous reformer. I am Catholic (shocker huh) but I am also a student of history, European medieval history to boot, and the Church was shitty back then. I admire what Martin Luther protested against. Am I happy the devastation and centuries of vile hatred that ensued? No. Do I think Martin Luther “got it right”? lol no. But I admire a man standing up to the biggest political machine of the day to fight things he saw as unjust and live to tell the tale. This book, by the way, is not “paritan” in any way; it is not a Catholic scholar dragging Luther through the hot coals, nor a washed-over Protestant celebration story. However it would be interesting to next read books about Martin Luther from those two perspectives to compare.

A Future of Faith: The Path of Change in Politics and Society by Pope Francis with Dominique Wolton (audiobook)

Books written by/with Pope Francis always bring a smile to my face and give me hope for the future of Catholicism and faith in general. I firmly believe he is a saint of our times. This book isn’t specifically about Catholicism or Christianity so much as it is just about humanity. Religions do not have the monopoly on compassion and humility (and sometimes “religious” folks are just the opposite!). This book is an interview between the Pope and a journalist so it reads really well as an audiobook & over all refreshing. I needed this in the days leading up to the Trump vs Biden election.

Sister Wendy on the Art of Christmas by Sister Wendy Beckett

Funny fact, I actually purchased this for a friend for Christmas, and as I am wont to do, I read it first. This book can be read in less than an hours sitting. It has beautiful images and nice short essays on each of the images and how they relate to the Advent/Christmas season.

Read more: I’m not late – it’s still Christmas!

Islam: A Short Guide to the Faith

I received this book for free during a summer program at Duke on the Middle East. If you are looking for short, to the point, chapters on various basics of Islamic tradition, history or belief then this is a great option! Each chapter is its own topic and they can be totally read out of order (I did that!). This book will not answer all your intricate questions but will give you a solid foundation to understanding the foundational elements of Islam, however I would hope that you seek more information in the future of this beautiful religion.

Read more: Middle East & Islam Blog Posts

Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Padre Pio

Each day of Advent & the Christmas season has a little introduction, scripture reading, call to action, and blessing. Short & sweet, perfect on my nightstand to read an entry before bed. I wasn’t really good at the class to action (I never am) but this book is a perfect daily devotional that anyone can keep up with!

Read more: Catholic Culture: Don’t Forget Advent

Every Sacred Sunday Mass Journal: 2020-2021

These books have really elevated my mass attendance. I love being able to read along (especially now that missals are not in the pews due to COVID) and write notes to myself and make connections in the margins. Additionally, if we cannot make it to mass for reason I can still *get* part of the experience with the readings and meditations. If you are struggling to find any purpose in going to mass, I highly highly recommend gifting yourself this book!

Theology of Home II: The Spiritual Art of Homemaking

Honestly, I liked the first Theology of Home way better. That book was more about setting up and creating a home that instills peace and rootedness. It was exactly the perfect book to reread during COVID stay-at-home-orders. I thought this book was going to be a similar vein, and I guess it was, but the book was more about mothering and kind of being a stay at home mom (neither of which is in my life right now). Although lovely, this book felt more preachy to me that the other one. I wouldn’t NOT recommend it, but you have to want to read a cozy book about being a homemaker for me to recommend this to you. However, finishing this book makes me want to go back and read the first one.

Read more: Trying to be Thankful in 2020

Drinking with St. Nick: Christmas Cocktails for Sinners and Saints by Michael P. Foley

This book was so much fun to read & it makes a great Christmas gift. Each entry has a little religious history, lots of humor and an abundant amount of drinks recipes. The author also has another book that I can’t wait to get someone for their (adult) confirmation: Drinking with Your Patron Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to Honoring Namesakes and Protectors.

Read more: Catholic Culture: 2020 December Calendar

African & African-American Religion (audiobook)

I’m not sure I would really count this as a whole “book,” considering the audiobook was only 2 hours. . .but hey, who’s counting, right? Um I really don’t think I would recommend this because I needed a lot more than 2 hours listening to a book to understand the topic BUT it definitely whet my appetite to learn more about indigenous African traditions.

History/Academic Books

The New Middle East: What Everyone Needs To Know by James L. Gelvin

I actually got to meet the author of this book because he was one of our guest lecturers on my Duke summer program, Dimensions of the Middle East. And he described it as “a good toilet read,” which got a good chuckle from the group but I see his point. The book is set up into thematic chapters, broken down Q&A style. So, although it incredibly difficult to digest, it can be done in short chunks. This book took me months to read only because I would read a section or two a day, need to walk away and a few days later I would pick it up again.

Read more: Middle East & Islam Blog Posts

It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America by David Cay Johnston (audiobook)

The title just about sums up everything you need to know about this book. It is a glorious dissection of the atrocities of Trump & his administration written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Obviously this book is “partisan” and “political;” this is not some attempt at an ahistorical view of Trump. However, the author, is a well-researched journalist who knows his stuff. Unfortunately, no member of the Trump cult will read this, but they should. It’s not just that the author dislikes Trump, that’s not the point, it’s the he researched all of his campaign claims and then tracked his actions, ALL of which have harmed Americans.

Read more: 2020: My Political Stance

Why?: Explaining the Holocaust by Peter Hayes

I was given this book as part of my NEH summer institute on the Holocaust and we had to read two chapters before our program. The book’s format and clarity struck a chord with me and I vowed to finish it. I was further encouraged when a colleague, who has his Ph.D. in the Holocaust, also ordered the book. I figured we could have a book club 🙂 he laughed at me. Oh well, I had an imaginary book club with myself. The Holocaust is a weighty subject, but one that needs to be sought out and deeply studied, by this I mean going beyond the pithy line “Never Forget” and memorizing the phrase “6 million Jews.” I think more public discourse needs to be focused on WHY it happened, not the HOW. I could go on and on how I feel our current political climate mimics the era of 1930s Germany, but instead, I encourage you to read this book and formulate your own educated opinions on it.

Read more: Day trip from Munich: Dachau

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari (audiobook)

Without exaggeration I can say this book was life-changing! Yes it’s an “academic” book but the author’s style of writing is incredibly clear. I kept pausing the audiobook to deeply think about his ideas and connections. It was honestly the perfect distraction from the COVID-19 outbreak. Although the author presents a lot of bleak outlooks for the future, he is not an alarmist, but a realist presenting how, using history as our guide, we can overcome the unseen challenges of the future.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari (audiobook)

I didn’t like this one as much as the book above, I think I misinterpreted the subject of the book. Don’t get me wrong through, it was a good if not great book, but had a lot of overlap with the previous one. I really enjoy his view on history & the future. The author is a historian who has a really objective way of correlating past societies, connecting them with our world today and using that information to provide options (not predictions) for the future.

“Fun” Books

My Life in France by Julia Child & Alex Prud’homme (audiobook)

I was going to Paris this Spring Break as a school chaperone (but then coronavirus!) and I wanted to read/listen to books that taught me some cultural and language points. Although this book obviously leans more on the food culture side, it helped me with my rudimentary French pronunciation. Double win! This book had me both pining for the days gone by of homemaking AND yet also eternally grateful for my modern appliances. This is not a cookbook, Julia Child did write Mastering the Art of French Cooking for that, instead this was a biographical/ethnographic look at the Childs’ life abroad and Julia’s discovery of French cuisine culture.

Tipping Point: How Little Things can make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (audiobook)

I love Malcolm Gladwell’s sociological books. They read like novels but are jam-packed non-fiction. This book is about how epidemics (not diseases!) build and “tip over.” He includes a myriad of examples with an incredible range of high fashion to medical treatments. It’s not a difficult read and goes by quickly because it’s so interesting.

Why French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure by Mireille Guiliano (audiobook)

OMG this book was hilarious and so not “PC,” which sometimes was a breath of fresh air. The book does not make fun of those with legitimate health issues, but it does a frank job of glaringly cutting open the many things wrong with the American food culture: the fast food obsession, lack of family dinners, quick fixes, and lack of ritual. So much of the culture of European-style cooking and eating I gluttonously inhaled while in Italy (see what I did there? lol). This book resonated deeply with me. So, if you don’t mind your precious American ego getting bruised a bit and want to recapture the love of good food read this book!

Read more: Italian Food

The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (audiobook)

Oooooo THIS BOOK! I can’t and won’t spoil it but if you’re a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, it is an obvious must read. The format was totally different, it reads as witness statements and testimonies in a trial or history anthology and it was so juicy getting back into the dystopian world.

Read moreBook Review! The Handmaid’s Tale

Fahrenheit 451  by Ray Bradbury (audiobook)

Are you surprised I hadn’t read this book yet? I am! I think Will casually mentioned it during quarantine and I said “sure, I’ve got nothing else to do.” It eerily mirrored what I felt was going on with the idiocracy coming from President Trump. How quickly the masses turn on the nurses, doctors, academics, and other intellectuals to listen to a fear-mongering entertainer. This book is a classic and a quick read.

Inferno by Dante Alighieri and translated by Mark Musa (rereading)

My first encounter with this epic poem was in Florence during my first study abroad and it was magical. I have taught it and loved it in Humanities I every year. I was sad that I was unable to do Dante face-to-face due to our distance learning and mentioned it to a coworker, he said he had always wanted to read it but it was a daunting book to casually pick up. So birthed our plan! I was going to be his “Virgil,” guiding him through reading the Inferno and that turned out to be so much fun we continued with Purgatorio & Paradiso during the summer months.

Read moreDante’s Inferno: “Love, that excuses no one loved from loving.” (Circle 2)

Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri and translated by Mark Musa

I actually think I liked this better than Inferno which is saying something because I loveeee Inferno. While reading this book it felt generous in a way, and provided a much needed balance to people’s view of the European medieval world and the Catholic Church’s role in it. The way Dante talks to the souls in Purgatory was not damning (obviously) nor dismissive, but each person had redemption and that was so lovely in connection to a Church often thought of for its rules, not its love. I think that beauty is quite evident in this quote below:

“I hold these keys from Peter, who advised: ‘Admit too many, rather than too few, if they but cast themselves before your feet.”

— Canto IX

Paradiso by Dante Alighieri and translated by Mark Musa

This was my least favorite book in the Divine Comedy. And going into the book I had a feel it was not going to be my favorite, so maybe it was just a self-fulfilling prophecy. There were definitely some good moments and quotes in the book but I disliked the imagery of heaven & missed the contrapposto seen in Inferno and Purgatorio. I also don’t love the character of Beatrice, which is such a bummer because I’ve been *literally* waiting to meet her in book form since I first read Dante in college. But again, maybe my expectations set up this book for failure in my mind.

Read more: Discovering Dante in Florence

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat

Yes this is a “cookbook” but it is so much more than that. It’s a ode to the love of cooking. The first half of the book is about the love, art, and science of cooking. How to enjoy every moment in the kitchen and how to use ingredients to bring out the best in your dishes. I was enthralled in this book for 3 days, reading every page (even the recipes) and getting excited to cook. And now I try to use recipes from the book at least every other week but I carry the principles learned in the book in my heart as I cook and my food is coming out so much better each and every time. I HIGHLY recommend this book to anyone who wants to love cooking more.

Ship of Theseus by J.J. Abrams & Doug Dorst (I’m actually still finishing this!)

Award for weirdest/coolest/most intriguing book I have ever read (& probably will ever read!). It’s hard to describe & I really don’t want to spoil it so I’ll keep it short. The book is a story about this man with amnesia, written by a fictional, but mysterious author, and in the margins are two people having a conversation with each other about the book and their lives. So there are two (three maybe?) stories intertwined. On top of that there is paper, photographs, & media slipped in the pages of the book that makes you feel like you found this book at the back of the library left by two college kids. Did that explanation confuse you? Sorry – READ THIS BOOK!!!! Savor it.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (audiobook)

Swoon!!! I fell in love with the show on Netflix (by that I mean in love with Jaime Fraser of course!). Once I finished the seasons available on Netflix I knew I didn’t want to leave the world of the highlands so I started the audiobook. These books are huge so it took a little over a month of car time but I loved each and every moment of it. Most of the time I would suggest reading the books first, but honestly the show augmented the book. This was excellent as an audiobook because it really allowed me to escape into the story but I’m sure print is great too!

No Crumbs Left: Recipes for Everyday Food Made Marvelous by Teri Turner

Just like Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, this book is way way more than “just a cookbook.” One of my 2020 goals was to cook more out of my pantry and it morphed into a trying to love the act of cooking. Not just the shoot-I-have-to-get-dinner-on-the-table kind of cooking, but the slowing down on a Sunday afternoon type of cooking. Both books are helping me get there one spoonful at a time.

Read more: When you can’t travel cook. . .beignets

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

Weird choice for the list, I know. Will & I went away to a friend’s parent’s Georgia cabin for a few days and I just wanted to bring a book that was delightful & easy to read. I’m not as big of a Narnia fan as LOTR (yes, yes I know they have two totally different audiences) but this book was cute and quite easy to enjoy.

Cooking with the Saints

I got this book for Christmas and quickly sat on the couch to gobble it up (pun totally intended). An absolutely perfect gift for me! The recipies look fantastic, interesting and full of history. I also like that each month has one saint’s entry that is a full multi-course dinner so I can elevate a nice weekend dinner easily or pull the dishes apart for multiple nights.

Read more: Student Series! Saints & Disease: Pray the Pain Away

Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War by Judith Miller, Williams J. Broad, & Stephen Engelberg

This was part of our 2020 summer book swap, one of my most favorite couples traditions we have. This year’s books were totally accidently about China (the one I gave to Will) & germs. Like I swear it was in no way related to COVID-19. We select books without consulting the other and we presented them today. This book was dense but excellent! Helped me to understand complicated US-Middle Eastern geopolitics in a new biological-warfare light. 🙂 I promise, it’s excellent.


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