I'm a bit late posting my list of favorite books in 2008, but there were a lot of good ones! Here's my brief take on those I loved the most in 2008. A few of them were actually published in 2008, but most of them were just new to me. Links are to my longer reviews on Epinions.
Favorite History Book of the Year: America, 1908: The Dawn of Flight, the Race to the Pole, the Invention of the Model T and the Making of a Modern Nation, by Jim Rasenberger
-- I’m reading more history (and cultural history) than ever before. This was an excellent book, really capturing the ethos of one of my favorite eras in American history.
Children’s biography of the year: Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian
--I posted about this recently so won’t say much more other than to once again highly recommend this beautiful picture book. Azarian’s woodcut illustrations are superb and it’s packed full of good biographical information on W.A. “Snowflake” Bentley, a pioneer in micro-photography.
Favorite Biography of the year: Home, by Julie Andrews.
-- This one wins by virtue of the fact that it was the only biography I read in full in 2008 (must remedy that this year!). I did like it, however. A warm memoir, well-written, with some interesting anecdotes about war-time England.
Picture book author of the year: Mary Ann Hoberman
--I’m saying mostly on the strength of our family’s love for the Seven Silly Eaters, which has to be one of the best rhyming picture books ever penned. It also has illustrations by the very talented Marla Frazee. We’ve also loved Hoberman’s The Two Sillies (which has nothing to do with the first book except that they both allude to silliness in the title!). Hoberman was named the United States children’s poet laureate this year.
Best Devotional Book: Water My Soul, by Luci Shaw
--Shaw’s meditations on gardening and the inner life were quieting and strengthening.
Best Novel I Read This Year: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
--This book restored my faith in contemporary fiction for adults. I read it, laughed, cried, and read it again. Just a marvelous book in every important way I judge a good book.
Best Novel I Re-Read This Year: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
--I re-read a lot a books each year so it’s actually not easy for me to assign a winner in this category. I chose P&P this year, not only because it’s one of my favorite novels of all time, but because I always forget how delicious it is until I pick it back up and lose myself in again. I didn’t even plan to re-read it this time; I picked it up to look up a quote and before I knew it, found myself eagerly turning to page one and starting the story all over again.
Favorite Book of Literary Criticism: Planet Narnia, by Michael Ward
--Just amazing in every way. I think it will be remembered as one of the most important books of Lewis scholarship every written. Its prose and presentation are completely elegant, and its thesis, that Lewis purposefully steeped each Chronicle in the ethos and literary characteristics of one of the planets of medieval cosmology, is brilliantly and cogently argued.
--I also thoroughly enjoyed John Granger’s The Deathly Hallow Lectures (longer review still forthcoming), a thought-provoking and intelligent analysis of the final book in the Harry Potter series. I especially loved the chapter on Dante’s influence on the Snape story arc and John’s further ruminations on the alchemical structuring of the final book and the epic as a whole. Sidenote: one of the literary highlights of my year came in November when I had a chance to hear John speak about this book. As much as I enjoy his written work, I think I enjoyed his intelligent, warm and witty presentation even more. It takes a great teacher to keep the attention and respect of an audience that ranges in age from 8-80, and John seriously did that!
Best "pop culture" book: Culture Making, by Andy Crouch
--I’m cheating a bit to put this book here, because it goes a lot deeper than a mere critique or engagement of popular culture or even culture in general. But Crouch offers some exciting ways to think about culture and our involvement in it: making it, responding to it, and finding God’s hand in it. Just terrific.
Favorite "new to me" children’s book, mid-grade reader (8-12 year old category): A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban
--What a marvelous novel. It almost “perfectly” captures the creative, wistful voice of an eleven year old with big dreams coming to terms with life (and people’s) imperfections. It also sensitively shows her discovery that good can still be found in spite of imperfection, and her growing awareness of the importance of courage in ways great and small.
I also loved The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt
--Funny, poignant, coming of age story which ends up being an homage to a lot of things, including families, the 1960s, Shakespeare and good teachers. Think “The Wonder Years” but with more real-life kinds of quirks and less sentiment. I’ll read this one again.
Favorite "new to me" young adult book (12-15 year old): The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale
--Shannon Hale is such a gifted writer. This was her debut novel from a few years back and I’m very glad I read it. A highly creative re-telling of the old Grimm tale of the same name. Pass this on to literate young teenagers who love fantasy and fairy-tale.
Best Children’s Book I Re-Read This Year: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
--I did this as a read-aloud with the sweet girl, and discovered how impossible it is to read Reepicheep’s journey through that wall of water at the end of the world without weeping. What a beautiful book. I never grow too old for Narnia.
Classic book I Can’t Believe I’d Never Read Before Now: Heidi by Johanna Spyri
-- The classic tale of the young orphan girl who goes to live in the Alps with her curmudgeonly old grandfather. I read it, then read it aloud to the sweet girl, and we both loved it. The writing is lovely and the story steeped in themes of redemption and prayer.
Favorite "new to me" picture book: The Growing Story by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
--This is actually a new edition, with new illustrations, of a book originally published in the 1940s. A simple story about a little boy’s growing awareness of growing thing all around him and of his own growth. Oxenbury’s pictures are beautiful. Her illustrations always leave me with a true yearning to draw, and the courage to believe that maybe I can.
Book I Wish I Hadn’t Wasted My Time Reading: Harry: a History, by Melissa Anelli
Book I Should Have Finished (and still plan to): Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell
The Book That Surprised Me Most: Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia. I didn’t know one could be swept off one’s feet by the beauty of a cohesive, persuasive literary argument.
The Book That Made Me Laugh the Most: I chose two this year (to make up for not being able to choose even one last year!): The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and The Wednesday Wars. Both books, though completely different in subject matter and audience, had a wonderful way of reminding me how close tears and laughter can be.
Book That Challenged Me the Most: (besides the Bible): Culture-Making, by Andy Crouch
Favorite “new to me” mystery writer: Jill Paton Walsh.
--She’s been around awhile but I just “discovered” her. I’ve been enjoying her Imogene Quy mysteries and plan to read her completion of Sayers’ unfinished novel once I finish my re-reading of all the Sayers Wimsey/Vane novels. This has been a good year for mysteries and me: lots of fun time spent re-reading Agatha Christie (all the Tommy and Tuppence books) plus my beginning re-read of Sayers.
Favorite "new to me" Spiritual Resource/Bible for Children: The Jesus Storybook Bible (longer review forthcoming)
--A good companion to the book I chose in this category last year, The Big Picture Bible. Like that resource, this storybook Bible focuses on the overreaching narrative of the Scriptures, which affects its story choices and the way it retells those stories. I love this one especially for its focus on God’s unending love for his people, the way each story points the reader to Jesus, and the amazing artwork.
Favorite book of theological reflections: Culture Making, by Andy Crouch. As I said, it’s not just a book about culture and people, but about the God who made both people and culture. Deep insights into the brokenness and yet the potential goodness (and redeem-ability) of human cultural activity.