Monday, January 2, 2017

2016: My Year in Books


Total books: 203
Total pages: 62,466
Longest read of 2016: George Eliot's Middlemarch, 904 pages - This marks the second time I've read this book. I can now say with authority that it's not a book that necessarily needs to be read twice.
General breakdown: 118 non-fiction, 85 fiction.

While I did meet my overall goal of 200 books, 2016 marks the first year I haven't posted growth in the numbers. I attribute this largely to having a very productive writing year. In any case, I read a lot of great books this year! Here's a sampling of the ones that have stuck with me.

Standout Reads by Category

Theology/Bible Study/Spirituality: 30 books

If you follow my reading updates at all, it will come as no surprise that during the second half of the year, my devotional life has been largely influenced by Elisabeth Elliot. I downed five of her books in quick succession, admiring her spare prose just as much as her deep spiritual wisdom. Honestly, they were all good reads, but the standout proved A Path Through Suffering: Discovering the Relationship between God's Mercy and Our Pain.
Suffering creates the possibility of growth in holiness, but only to those who, by letting all else go, are open to the training--not by arguing with the Lord about what they did or did not do to deserve punishment, but by praying, "Lord, show me what You have for me in this." ~Elisabeth Elliot
Wise words, and ones that came to me precisely at the right season. The Lord always knows.

I've been following Nabeel Qureshi for some time - on social media as well as in print. This year I read the short and sweet Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward as well as the more indepth No God But One: Allah or Jesus? While I appreciate the former for its simplicity and practicality, I reveled in the clear and precise theology of the latter. Whether you struggle with antipathy toward Muslims or you're eager to reach hands across the religious divide and open conversations, you'll want to set aside time for both of these books. (And pray for the author while you're at it. He's currently battling serious cancer.)

Profitable reads also included Michael F. Bird's What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Doctrine through the Apostles' Creed and Russell Moore's Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches. Both men demonstrate deeply-grounded theology while practicing a conversational style shot through with humor.

Honorable Mention: The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms, by Timothy and Kathy Keller

History: 23 books

Three books by Daniel James Brown dominated my 2016 reading landscape. The first two were Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 and The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Story of a Donner Party Bride. Fire and ice, anguish and heartbreak. These are the stories that burrow onto your brain and don't let you forget -- even if you want to. Don't say I didn't warn you. Fortunately, not everything by Brown is completely gut-wrenching. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics proved a welcome exception. I hadn't thought a book about rowing could be this interesting, even a book about rowing set during the rise of the Nazi party. Fortunately, I was wrong. Though only a sliver of the story deals with the actual Berlin games, this is still an engrossing read. Wholly enjoyable and recommended.

I have yet to read a book by Hampton Sides in which he doesn't seem to be at the top of his game. Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin is no exception. It's excellent both in terms of style and scholarship. I commend it (and all his other books) to you.

American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow by Jerrold M. Packard is a wonderfully concise treatment of America's Jim Crow laws and the deep scar they leave on our national conscience. I appreciate that although Packard offers a birds-eye view, he does not allow readers to lose sight of the individual.

Honorable Mention: How to Be a Victorian, by Ruth Goodman 

General Adult Fiction: 19 books

I don't know why, but I couldn't seem to pick good fiction this year. Thankfully, there were two exceptions to the 2016 Fiction Dudpocalypse.

While my overall response to Everything I Never Told You is still conflicted, the story has really stuck with me. Author Celeste Ng peels back layer after layer of complex narrative to reveal a core quite different from what the initial premise led me to expect. I don't mean that as a criticism, per se. I wouldn't call it a bait-and-switch, but the story I got was definitely different from what I expected. It's all done so skillfully, however, that I hardly cared. I should note that I didn't precisely like the story; but I was surprised by it, and that's something that doesn't happen very often. I wouldn't recommend this book for everyone (the themes are unsettling), but those for whom style matters - who look forward to being riveted by an expert storyteller who knows exactly what she's doing - this book could be for you.

On the other end of the spectrum is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. After having this book recommended to me close to a hundred times, I finally caved and checked it out from the library just to appease some persistent friends. I fully expected to hardcore eye-roll my way through the whole thing. I'm not sure what about the book set my expectations so low -- maybe it was the fact that the book was super popular among book clubs, and I had my book-club-book hackles up. I'm pleased to report that the story is fun, engaging, and poignant in the best possible way. While not every aspect is to my taste, I still enjoyed the read immensely. As far as I'm concerned, co-authors Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows deserve their acclaim.

Honorable Mention: So Brave, Young, and Handsome, by Lief Enger

Middle Grade Fiction: 14 books

I enjoyed reading Kate DiCamillo's Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures aloud with the Podlings at lunch. It's utterly adorable and fun (although sometimes tough to read to a group because the illustrations play a part in the plot). I loved the oddball humor, the story-within-a-story feel, and Ulysses' obsession with Floria's giant, round head. 

One that I haven't read with the kids (yet?) is the heartbreaking Small as an Elephant, in which the young protagonist Jack must navigate a life complicated by a sweet but mentally-ill mother. It's not the external details of Jack's journey that drew me in but his poignant internal conflict. Kudos to Jennifer Richard Jacobson for setting up Jack's epic journey and resolving his major conflict in a believable (but heart-squeezy) way.

Honorable Mention: Winnie the Pooh, by A.A. Milne

Young Adult Fiction: 13 books

The 2016 Fiction Dudpocalypse somehow infected YAF as well. At best, I felt ambivalent toward the books I chose. At worst, I hated them. A noted exception: I got all excited that Megan Whalen Turner announced a new book set in the world of The Thief. I started an epic reread of the series and remembered all the reasons I loved it in the first place. If you haven't made time for it yet, do so.

Narrative/Journalistic Non-Fiction: 12 books

My obsession with all things Arctic/Antarctic/Everest-themed continues, only now I've added K2 to my watchlist. This is due largely to Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan's Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2's Deadliest Day. As pleased as I was to find a book that focused on the fate of the ethnic minorities on the K2 expedition, and as gripping and well-documented as I found this account, in the end I almost regretted reading it. This book made me feel so incredibly sad -- sadder even than when I read Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air (the book that started my whole adventure/disaster reading obsession). The K2 book made me question whether or not I should give mountaineering disaster books a rest.

Of course, I didn't. Hence In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic landing on this list (my Goodreads review starts with, "Here we are, back in the Arctic, because apparently I never learn"). If you do pick up this journal (translated by Alison Anderson), do not skip the epilogue. That's where the real drama unfolds, and the aspect of the narrative revealed in the epilogue changes everything. You have to read the rest of the book for the bombshell to land, but it's worth it.

For a disaster of another kind, I picked up Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaskan Frontier. Emphasis on the madness. Papa Pilgrim, like all manipulative/abusive cult leaders, makes me furious for the sake of his family and followers. Tom Kizzia deftly weaves a story equally gripping and upsetting. (I read this while vacationing in Paris this summer. Talk about cognitive dissonance!)

Honorable Mention: The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann

Fantasy: 12 books

Much of my fantasy reading this year was absorbed with re-reading Connie Willis's Oxford novels and revisiting Robin Hobb's Farseer/Tawny Man trilogy of trilogies in anticipation for the release of Fool's Quest (The Fitz and The Fool #2), which I enjoyed but didn't particularly love. While I'm still interested in the overall arc, I've ceased finding the two central characters compelling. I might be wrong, but I'm beginning to suspect that Hobb may never lay to rest my central question about The Fool. 

By far the most intensely absorbing read of 2016 was Josh Malerman's Bird Box. This was probably the most suspenseful book I read all year. The story sucked me right in and held me all the way to the end. One of the lines literally made me gasp aloud. So in one sense, the author had me right where he wanted me. Unfortunately, while the book held me to the end, the end didn't satisfy me 100%. That's my main criticism. While gentle readers should be warned of some strong language, violence, and intense psychological shenanigans, these aspects of the story fit into the bleak landscape of the post-apocalyptic world in which the story is set and therefore do not feel gratuitous.

Honorable Mention: Crosstalk, by Connie Willis

Mystery: 12 books

In 2015, I immersed myself in the theological work of Dorothy L. Sayers. In 2016, I made time for her Peter Wimsey novels, including Whose Body?, Clouds of Witness, Have His Carcase, Strong Poison, and Gaudy Night. While I enjoy Lord Peter as a character, I loooooove him in chorus with Harriet Vane. Harriet's the cat's pajamas. I wish she were real and that we were best friends (and, if we're wishing, that we were members of a women's detection club chaired by Miss Marple).

Although I wasn't a big fan of Alan Bradley's 7th offering in the Flavia de Luce series, I'd loved the first six books and had been eagerly anticipating Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd (Flavia #8) -- and not just because of the Macbeth-themed title. When I found out Flavia was back in Bishop's Lacey for #8, I nearly cried with joy: the setting and England-bound cast of characters account for more than half my enjoyment in these books.  The climax and denouement of #8 are exquisite. (But you guys, that ending. THAT ENDING. Someone please read this book so we can talk about it!)

Psychology/Sociology: 9 books

Jonah Berger's Contagious: Why Things Catch On wasn't exactly deep, but it did spark some ideas for how I plan to attack marketing my new book. On the other hand, Matthew Desmond's Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City forced me to think deeply (and uncomfortably) on themes of poverty and exploitation.

Honorable Mention: Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, by Joby Warrick

Classics: 9 books

Both of my standout reads in this category were tandem re-reads with my fifteen-year-old niece. I so enjoyed seeing these books through her eyes as we laugh/cried our way through Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and ground our teeth together through Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

Honorable Mention: The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham

Biography: 8 books

Strong women dominated my biographical reading during 2016, starting in January with Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior. I read this on strong recommendation and enjoyed it immensely. I'd never heard of Hannah More before, leading me to think that she's really been sadly overlooked by the historical and Christian communities in general, at least in the circles in which I move. I'd love to read some of her correspondence, if such a thing is possible. If anybody knows where/how I can do so, please let me know.

The contrast could not be stronger between the Hannah More biography and Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Nancy Milford's critical biography of Millay's life and work is a masterpiece: detailed, meticulous, and stark. Milford's offering is more textured than Daniel Mark Epstein's Millay biography, which I read in 2015 and is also very good: What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. While Epstein's bio is a good starter kit, this one has the weight of Millay's personal papers and correspondence adding an almost uncomfortable level of intimacy. If Milford wrote a second book about the process of writing this book (including detailed descriptions of all her interactions with Norma Millay at Steepletop), I would line up to get my hands on a copy.

Speaking of Epstein, this year I also dug into Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson. While I continue to be a big fan of Epstein's biographies in general, I found this one an uphill climb. This has nothing to do with the writing  or scholarship (both are excellent) and everything to do with the fact that the cyclical nature of Sister Aimee's life made for a repetitive read: Sister Aimee hosts a revival, Sister Aimee holds a healing service, Sister Aimee does something outlandish, Sister Aimee gets in trouble, Sister Aimee has a falling out with someone. Lather, rinse, repeat. I'm not sure what the Pentecostal movement as a whole makes of Sister Aimee's legacy - I'm not Pentecostal but I know that some of you are: I'd be interested to know, if any of you would care to enlighten me. I was curious to see how Epstein would handle his discussions of religion, belief, faith, and the supernatural. I appreciate his tact and respectful discussions of Christian beliefs in general, although I do have some minor quibbles with the lack of nuance in several areas; however, since this is a biography rather than a work of theology of philosophy, I don't know that we could have expected him to delve too deeply into such matters.

Then just last week, I gobbled up The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman. Author Margot Mifflin peers through the mists of myth surrounding the real Olive Oatman and offers a wonderful blend of crisp prose, keen analysis, and occasional bursts of humor.

Honorable Mention: The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather, by Rick Kennedy


Essays: 8 books

Rick Bragg's essays in My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South had me chuckling aloud. Sure, the essays on football had me yawning, but it's not Bragg's fault that I don't care about sports. Everything else in this collection--from the aspersions he casts on Florida water to his rants on cole slaw--is pure Southern charm. The essay about the time he glued himself to his own house had me in stitches.

True Crime: 8 books

Honorable Mention: Conviction: The Untold Story of Putting Jodi Arias Behind Bars, by Juan Martinez

Language/Writing/Craft: 7 books

I'd been hearing buzz for some time about Andy Crouch's book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Happy to report that I found the buzz well-deserved. Crouch lays out his arguments with strong theological underpinnings and ends with a call to Christians to take up their divine creative responsibility. For me, this was an enormously satisfying read.

Honorable Mention: Unashamed, by Lecrae 

Literary Criticism/Literary Biography: 4 books

By wonderful coincidence, I read the bulk of The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story while touring London. Just when I thought I couldn't possibly geek out more than I already had been, I read the chapter on Agatha Christie the very day that I went to see The Mousetrap in the West End--and I hadn't even planned it! But anyway, I'm sure this book is just as good when read at home, so don't despair. In it, Martin Edwards offers masterful analysis of the Golden Age of the Detective Story and the best-known crime writers of the day: their works, relationships, influences, and (most interesting for me) the symbiosis between their plots and their personal lives. Several of the revelations sent my eyebrows straight for my hairline. In short, if you've read any of the greats from this period (Christie! Sayers! Marsh! Berkley!), then this book's for you.

Memoir: 4 books

Most of the memoirs I read this year were written by men and women who'd chosen to leave Scientology. Probably the most interesting was by Lisa Pulitzer and Jenna Miscavige Hill, niece to current cult figurehead David Miscavige. While Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape wasn't exactly the book I'd been hoping for (it demonstrated a weird focus on seemingly-minor issues at some points), it did give an alarming peek at the all-out insanity that is insider Scientology. This is an important read for anyone trying to understand what it must be like for a child to be born into a cult and raised knowing nothing else. I pray that more like her have the courage to make it out.

Science/Medicine: 4 books

In The Mind's Eye, Oliver Sacks continues his tradition of clearly explaining neurological functions that are well above my pay grade. I'm sorry that I'll soon have read all of his published materials.

Steampunk: 3 books

The Aeronaut's Windlass didn't hook me right away, and the air battles -- although written well -- felt a bit tedious toward the end. Despite those minor critiques, I quite enjoyed Jim Butcher's first installment in his Steampunk adventure series The Cinder Spires. The personalities of the characters and the interactions between centeral trio (Bridget, Gwendolyn, Benedict) are what really drew me in. I'd have preferred a little more development on that front in exchange for a little less action, although the action really was exciting. (Those silkweavers!) Bridget might be my favorite character of this reading year. I look forward to following this series as it unfolds.

Honorable Mention: Manners and Mutiny, by Gail Carriger 

Western: 2 books

Although I've read tons of Westerns over the years (some of you will remember my epic Louis L'Amour phase), my favorite Western of all time remains Charles Portis's masterpiece True Grit. It's been a few years since I last read it, and the time provided just enough distance for the book to feel fresh. This is a sharp, smart read with a wonderful heroine. There's a strong story here, but it's worth picking up for the character dynamic alone. I've enjoyed it more each time I've read it, and the scene where the men shoot the corn dodgers literally had me laughing out loud this time around. What a wonderful book.

Scifi: 1 book

Another genre fallen victim to Fiction Dudpocalypse 2016. Not that I gave it much of a chance.

Poetry: 1 book

I dug into Millay's A Few Figs from Thistles right after reading Milford's biography. The poems seemed fresh with the perspective that the biography afforded.

Books by Friends!

A new category in which I shamelessly plug books by friends, acquaintances, and fellow writers.

I had the opportunity to review a pre-publication version of Ed Smither's book Missionary Monks: An Introduction to the History and Theology of Missionary Monasticism. Given my thin knowledge of very early missionary work, this proved an informative and valuable read on several fronts, not the least of which was the application section, which provides thought-provoking implications for modern-day ministry.

Becca Puglisi is more like a friend-of-a-friend at this point, but we're friends on Facebook now, so I feel comfortable sticking her here. The book she's co-authored with Angela Ackerman, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression, has proven invaluable to me over the last year. If you work in fiction, you'll want to pick this up. I should also note that it's part of a toolkit series that I look forward to exploring more in the future. 

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I'm always on the prowl for my next good read! If you have a book to recommend, or if you want to chime in with an opinion of any of the books mentioned in this post, feel free to use the comment section below or contact me through whatever channels we generally interact - Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, text, between services at church, dreamwalking, or telepathy. 

Happy reading, friends!

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My Year in Books: Roll Call


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4 comments:

  1. Very eclectic list, Ruth.
    Good luck and God's blessings
    PamT

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  2. Oh, my. I really enjoyed reading through your list. I loved The Boys in the Boat. I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society years ago and still love it. Rick Bragg is tremendous, but I haven't read My Southern Journey. I'm looking forward to it thanks to you. He either makes me cry or laugh out loud. You mentioned Young Adult books. Did you read Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys? Great book about the worst maritime tragedy we never heard of. I love that you read all kinds of books. Thanks so much for sharing!

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    Replies
    1. I haven't read Salt to the Sea yet. Will check it out - thanks!

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