Nineteen Reads of 2019

It’s been a stimulating, enriching, and enlivening year of reading across topics of religious freedom, minority experiences, foreign affairs, Judaism, Christianity, and cultural criticism.

Through these books, I’ve “travelled” Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Ohio, South Carolina, New York, Poland, and Austria.

At the end is a short review of my favourite overall book of the year and here are my nineteen reads of 2019 with some favourite quotations or brief comments.

1. Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi

“One morning I was driving my teenage son, Shachar, to school. Not far from the Old City, we got caught in a traffic jam. I said, ‘You know, in one sense here we are, sitting in a traffic jam, just like in any city anywhere. But sometimes it occurs to me that the most boring details of our daily life were the greatest dreams of our ancestors.’ I didn’t expect much of a response. Shachar, a jazz musician, tends not to speak in historical categories. But he surprised me. ‘I think about that a lot,’ he said.”

Yossi Klein Halevi is a great storyteller and I really enjoyed discussing this book with a Palestinian friend of mine.

2. The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State by Nadia Murad

“I still think that being forced to leave your home out of fear is one of the worst injustices a human being can face. Everything you love is stolen, and you risk your life to live in a place that means nothing to you and where, because you come from a country known for war and terrorism, you are not really wanted.”

Haunting. This is an unforgettable personal account of suffering at the hands of ISIS. Nadia put her people, the Yazidis, on our consciences. Now let’s look out for the traumatized yet heroically resilient Yazidi refugees in our midst and do our utmost the reunite families separated under the most horrific conditions.

3. Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion by Abraham Joshua Heschel

This book and the next one by Heschel were read in a reading group of Jewish and Christian young professionals. Uplifting, deep. Good food for thought and discussion. Heschel is among the most accessible and inviting Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century.

4. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism by Abraham Joshua Heschel

5. Can’t is not an Option by Nikki Haley

“We are all, to one degree or another, reflections of our parents. I use the word ‘reflection’ deliberately. I am only an echo, an imperfect reflection of my remarkable parents.”

Listened to this one on audiobook narrated by the author, which really brought her story to life. Haley is an incredibly grounded, rooted, poised, elegant, and principled leader. Such a role model.

6. From Fire, By Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith by Sohrab Ahmari

“Now the friar held up a golden cup. The bell rang thrice. My silent tears gave way to choked sobs. I was in the proximity of an awesome and mysterious force–a force bound up with sacrifice, with self-giving unto death, the ideas that made my heart tremble ever since I was a boy.”

A good spiritual memoir tracing Sohrab’s upbringing in Iran, his move to America, and his gradual embrace of Catholicism.

7. Judas by Amos Oz

Very engaging work of Israeli fiction. Story within story. Especially cool to read upon my return from Jerusalem when so many of the settings had become familiar. Thanks to Gabi for recommending it.

8. Suddenly Love by Aahron Applefeld

More Israeli fiction that seems more memoir-esque than fictional. A somberly poetic novel about a young woman accompanying an elderly gentleman as they contend with their respective losses.

9. Worship of the Heart: Essays on Jewish Prayer by Joseph Soloveichik

Deeply philosophical yet conducive to prayeful reflection. My favourite chapter was on intention.

10. Life of Saint Antony by St. Athanasius

“That they may get knowledge, the Greeks live abroad and cross the sea, but we have no need to depart from home for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, nor to cross the sea for the sake of virtue. For the Lord aforetime hath said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is within you.'”

Interestingly read this book about desert monasticism on a flight to Taiwan.

11. Romance Behind Judaica: Celebrating the Richness of the Jewish Calendar by Faydra Shapiro

An enjoyable, accessible primer on Jewish holidays filled with delightful anecdotes about the glorious and beautiful ways the relationship between God and man is celebrated. Good work, Faydra!

12. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Good cultural commentary and an eye-opening window into lesser known aspects of American life. Vance raises good questions about rootedness and identity but, at the very end of the book, seems to be only at the very beginning of answering them.

13. Dear Zealots by Amos Oz

Amazing essays. Oz is so on point and so deeply humanizing. Was wonderful to read this as I flew into Israel last May.

14. The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

“All philosophy is rooted in the suffering of the passage over time.”

Good literature. As soon as I read that Ozick is like a Jewish Flannery O’Connor, I was intrigued. It’s accurate.

15. My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home by Michael Brendan Dougherty

“A nation cannot live its life as a mere administrative district or as a shopping mall; nations have souls. It’s a virtue when poetry colonizes our politics, even if today the situation is reversed. The life of a nation is never reducible to mere technocracy, just as the home cannot be, no matter how much we try to make it so. I see that nationality is something you do, even with your body, even with your death.”

Written as letters to his father who was mostly absent from his life, Dougherty grapples with the need to know where he comes from in order to gain direction and insight into where he is going. Characteristic of and relevant to our times. Thanks so much to Peter for recommending this gem of a book.

16.The Retreat by Aharon Appelfeld

“The magic had dimmed but not vanished. Especially when he spoke of the melancholy deeply embedded in the soul of our tribe. For the most part, he spoke of this subject in a whisper, with a kind of reverence for the subtle and unpredictable human sensation in question. A sad tribe which bequeathed its sadness to its children.”

Short story on the tragic aspects of assimilation.

17.With All Due Respect: Defending America with Grit and Grace by Nikki Haley

Scroll down for complete review below.

18. God’s Hostage: A True Story of Persecution, Imprisonment, and Perseverance by Andrew Brunson

Fascinating story of Pastor Brunson’s imprisonment in Turkey and of how he continually struggled to see God’s providence in his suffering but ultimately convinced himself that God is worthy of his all. Impressive work by the Trump administration to help bring Brunson home.

19. Mama Maggie: The Untold Story of One Woman’s Mission to Love the Forgotten Children of Egypt’s Garbage Slums by Marty Makary and Ellen Vaughn

“The journey of Coptic believers in Egypt had been a long one. Their faith is not a cultural add-on as religion can be in other cultures. It’s core to their identity. As one Egyptian put it, ‘In other places, religion is a part of life. Here, life is a part of religion.”

An amazing, uplifting, and faith-filled story of Mamma Maggie, an affluent Coptic Christian woman who decided to devote her life to serving the poor, instilling confidence, and raising people to an awareness of their dignity. Edifying to learn about the establishment of the Stephen’s Children ministry and thanks to Chris and Christine for the introduction.

BEST OVERALL:

Nikki Haley’s With All Due Respect: Defending America with Grit and Grace

Already a New York Times bestseller, Nikki Haley’s memoir about her tenure as United States Ambassador to the United Nations offers exemplary lessons in principled leadership in politics in general and foreign policy in particular.

Contextualizing her unanticipated launch into her role as ambassador, Haley begins with a couple chapters about her time as Governor of South Carolina. In them, she reflects on the Charleston church shooting and the debate that ensued in the aftermath over removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. The daughter of Indian immigrant parents, Haley had been serving as governor in the state in which she was born and raised, when she received a text informing her that there had been a shooting at Mother Emanuel Church. Attempting to do a press conference the following day, she got choked up and was frustrated with herself for her lack of composure. But she had learned that a white supremacist had planned and executed a mass shooting killing nine congregants at the oldest black church in her home state. How could she – how could anyone – be anything but completely shaken and stricken with grief at so great an evil?

The next difficult issue she had to navigate was the renewed controversy over the Confederate flag that had long flown at the statehouse. When photos emerged of the racist mass murderer posing with the flag, Haley knew that “the evil act he had committed had robbed the good-intentioned South Carolinians who supported the flag of this symbol of heritage and service.” She quickly concluded the flag should come down and began arranging meetings with legislators so that she could appeal to their compassion and patriotism in an effort to get the required bipartisan two thirds majority support needed to remove the flag. It was challenging, but she was successful and the drama of these defining moments demonstrated how Haley’s courage and resolve was forged, how she learned to transcend the partisan divide with the moral clarity of principles communicated with sincerity, and how these events laid the groundwork for the kind of strategic and tactful negotiations she would carry out at the United Nations.

I was impressed that Haley began with such a direct and serious engagement of issues of extremism, racism, identity, immigration, patriotism, and nationalism. These are the issues that strike at the heart of our public life and with which we desperately need to grapple with thoughtfulness, nuance, and civility as we seek the common good of all.

Haley tackles these issues well because she is not an ideologue. She thinks for herself and makes her own judgments by remaining honest to her life experiences, so someone who considers him or herself an absolute partisan will surely find her ideas a challenge. Anyone who expects blanket support from her for Trump will be disappointed as will anyone who expects a blanket denunciation. Haley defies categorization and this fact and her tact are why she can insist, “We are much more than the sum of our labels.”

With All Due Respect offers lessons in leadership combined with a fascinating overview of the key events in US foreign policy over the past couple of years, particularly at the United Nations. I think that most readers will find themselves thinking about politics, family life, faith, the businesses and projects in their own corner – and applying Haley’s lessons and insights and, where similar conditions do not exist, diagnosing their absence as the reason for certain crises and dysfunction within their proximate organizations and communities.

Some of Haley’s core principles come from her parents and how she was raised: “Whatever you do, be great at it and make sure people remember you for it” and “I always thought that if you take something on, you have to invest in it and be great at it. If you can’t do that, don’t do it.” Even the message – “Winners do what losers don’t want to”, which she found in a fortune cookie, gave her insight that she says helped inform her political endeavors.

Nikki Haley’s leadership is characterized by: loyalty, values, and unconventionality.

The Book of Sirach says, “Let those who are friendly with you be many, but let your advisors be one in a thousand. When you gain friends, gain them through testing, and do not trust them hastily.” (Sirach 6:6-7) Haley agrees with this biblical wisdom: “I’ve never had a big circle of advisors. I’ve always preferred a small, loyal team of trusted people.” From staffing her office with people who share her values to “taking names” at the UN of who could be trusted and who couldn’t – Haley knows the significance and the test of loyalty.

When it comes to defending values of democracy and human rights, Haley says she did so “not just because I believe in freedom and human dignity, but because I have seen what life is like when they are absent. I have seen things that I cannot un-see.” From this juxtaposition came a heightened responsibility to affirm certain values, even when standing alone in their defense. And so Haley consistently urges us to “challenge hate with the values we cherish.”

With All Due Respect is an engaging discussion of American foreign policy in the challenging geopolitical landscape involving Syria, Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, South Sudan, and Venezuela. It is also a heartening report that, even in the often exasperating world of the UN, Haley was able to achieve some concrete accomplishments like sanctions against North Korea, a veto against an anti-Israel resolution over the US embassy move to Jerusalem, and a weapons embargo against South Sudan. Providence readers are sure to appreciate this memoir of principled public service lived with grit and grace.

Here’s to an even more literary 2020!

Reading: “I Want You to Be”

One of my favourite spiritual writers and the recipient of the 2014 Templeton Prize is Czech priest and philosopher Tomáš Halík. His previous books have such evocative titles as: Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing In Us and Night of the Confessor: Christian Faith in an Age of Uncertainty.

Continue reading “Reading: “I Want You to Be””

Shabbat for Christians

Last Christmas, I was searching for a book to take with me on Christmas holidays. I asked God, the Divine Librarian, to help me choose one. Since I was going to France, a book that had been on my shelf but that I had not yet read caught my eye when I read the back cover. That book was, From the Kippah to the Cross, the conversion story of Jean-Marie Élie Setbon. Continue reading “Shabbat for Christians”