The Discworld Series by Sir Terry Pratchett

My first pick is a bit of a cheat. Instead of picking one book from this incredible series I’m recommending them all. While there are a few of the 41 different works that I return to more than others— Night Watch, Thief of Time, Going Postal — even the “lesser” books are excellent. This series, best described as fantasy meets satire, contains some of the best insights into people, society and our world that I’ve ever found. The characters are vivid and wonderful, the settings are more realistic than any set in a flat world resting on the back of four elephants and riding a space turtle have any right to be, and the stories sparkle with wit and brilliant word play.

The series is, in a word, delightful. Sir Terry’s love of people and his sharp mind show through on each page and each time I reread an old favorite I find myself seeing our world in new ways.

For those who haven’t yet discovered this series, the sheer quantity of books might seem overwhelming. It’s not. If anything, Sir Terry left us with far too few. Because each book is self-contained (though with characters and settings that reappear in various ones), the best way to get into the series is to pick up one, see if you like the premise, and then jump in. The only wrong way to start is not to start at all, so find one and enjoy!

Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity by Paul Barnett

This tome— and at nearly 450 dense pages this is most certainly a tome— is a must-read for anyone interested in the world of the New Testament and early church. I have a seminary degree and it’s no exaggeration when I say I learned more from this book than I did from all my New Testament classes and text books combined. Barnett is a brilliant researcher with a mind for the most minute details and in this book he brings the world of Acts to life.

While every page contains new insight into the foundations of my faith, the part that affected me the most was when Barnett goes through the events leading up to Paul’s last imprisonment, the one that would take him to Rome and eventually his death. I knew the story, of course, but Barnett draws upon his research to show the vast web of political and personal currents at work, fighting for the soul of the early church. For me, this was the section that turned the New Testament from a series of Sunday school stories to a chronicle of real people dealing with real questions. I cannot recommend it highly enough for those who wish to better understand the Christian faith.

Emma by Jane Austen

Another potential cheat— listing both book and movie adaptation— but both are favorites and bring this story to life in different ways.

Like Pratchett, Austen couldn’t write a bad book and I could recommend any of her works, but right now Emma most speaks to me. This story of a young woman of privilege coming to discover her own power in her world and learning how best to use it to help others is particularly meaningful at this time.

As a white woman from middle-class background who was able to get a good education, I’m increasingly aware of my own privileges, privileges I’m so accustomed to that they are often as invisible as the servants in Emma’s estate. For that reason I really enjoy watching Emma grow throughout the book and fumble through her world, making mistakes, almost ruining lives, and then finally turning it all around when she adds a touch of humility. Once she is willing to learn she becomes the wonderful woman readers knew she could be all along.

The latest theatrical adaptation does a masterful job of capturing all this, along with Austen’s brilliant characters, and adds to it incredible scenery and costuming. Director Autumn de Wilde captures the most subtle looks and moments, and Anya Taylor-Joy brings the complex Emma to life in her performance. It’s beautiful, funny and moving and will send you back to the joy of the book for another few hours in Austen’s world.

Alicia Marsh Evans is the new Director of Merchandising and Arts at United Way of Grayson County. The United Way of Grayson County supports 22 local nonprofits that deliver services to the area’s most at risk populations from the cradle to the grave. Evans previously worked as the store manager for the Women’s Gift Exchange in Sherman and also currently works for the Disney Store. She holds a master’s degree in Theology from Dallas Theology Seminary. She is the wife of Father Wesley Evans at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Sherman.