The Year in Books 2014

This year I included a new category in my reading totals–books of more than 100 pages that I read aloud to the kids (or audio books I listened to with them, or longer books I read in order to discuss them with the kids for our family book clubs).  I had never kept track of those books before, and it was interesting to note how much our school reading and nightly read aloud time adds up.

In 2014 I read 139 books for myself (including Hamlet, which I forgot to review, but it’s good, of course), plus an additional 73 books in the read aloud/kids category, for a total of 212 books.

Below I’ve compiled a list of my absolute top favorites out of those 212 (links are to my longer reviews).

Best Fiction

  • On Such a Full Sea – When a literary novelist combines incredible writing with a setting in the dystopian future and themes that delve into class distinctions, cultural narratives, and heroes, you almost have to read it.  And you won’t be sorry.
  • The Night Circus  – I actually read this book twice in one year (well, I listened to it on audio the first time, but still).  I’m not sure if it will go down as a classic, but the story is fabulous.
  • The Bone Clocks – Weird, but exceptionally well-crafted story about time, humanity, good and evil, and all sorts of other things. Gripping.

Best Life Management

  • Essentialism – This exceptional book is not about maximizing your life in 15 minute increments, but more about how to untangle confusion, busy-ness, and triviality to get at what’s most important to you, and then how to protect your time and focus so you can really give your best efforts to those priorities.

Best Education/Reading

  • Deconstructing Penguins – Makes talking to your kids about books much easier and more productive.  Great vision as well as practical helps for homeschoolers or traditional schoolers (it’s about a book club for public school kids, so not a homeschool book at all, just FYI).
  • How the Heather Looks – This travel memoir of a young family touring England in search of the locations from all of their favorite books is wonderfully written and inspiring.

Best Faith/Theology

  • A Neglected Grace – A succinct, inspiring description of the vision and practical implementation of family worship.  Very helpful.

Best History

  • The Great Influenza and Asleep – After reading these two books, my family will be getting flu shots every year.  Fascinating, frightening, and compelling.

Best Read Alouds

  • The Saturdays – Along with the rest of this series (the Melendy Quartet), a fun, original book about a group of siblings having great adventures.
  • Carry On, Mr. Bowditch – A perennial favorite (read twice aloud plus several times independently by both Jack and Hannah) about a colonial boy who pulls himself up by his bootstraps.
  • Five Children and It – Also a series (all wonderful!), this book follows a marvelous family of children and a weird creature who grants wishes.

What were the best books you read in 2014?

The 4th Quarter in Books – 2014

I reviewed 48 books in October, November, and December of this year.  As I was out of town last week and my husband drove (hurrah!) I actually finished a couple of other books, but we’ll save those for 2015.  🙂

Fiction

  • During the Reign of the Queen of Persia – Unexceptional writing, uninteresting characters, undeveloped plotlines…I was completely underwhelmed by this book and don’t recommend it.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Uplifting story of a poor family in the early 1900s and how they overcame adversity. Funny and poignant in turns, well-written, memorable.
  • *The Night Circus – I actually re-read a work of fiction within a calendar year.  This book is excellent.
  • *The Bone Clocks – An exceptional literary novel with striking characters, deeply developed plot and themes, and gripping pacing.  Some weird stuff, but highly recommended if you like to study excellent writing craft or just like a good story.
  • The Zone of Interest – A remarkably well-done twist on Holocaust fiction.  Thought-provoking, especially if you notice the allegorical elements.
  • Parnassus on Wheels – Fun, quick story of an early 1900s bookshop housed in a horse-drawn wagon.  Worth it.
  • The Haunted Bookshop – Sequel to the above, the main characters are party to a mystery now that they’ve settled down to Parnassus at Home.  Good, clean, fun.
  • The Children Act – A story that turns around legal and ethical dilemmas and how a judge’s personal life parallels her verdicts.

Education

Parenting

  • Transforming the Difficult Child – Hate the title, found the system rather complex, but did glean some helpful tips for dealing with bad behavior.
  • The Way of Boys – By far the best parenting book I read this quarter.  Refreshing, helpful, and positive.

Marriage

  • Grace Filled Marriage – Not the best book I’ve ever read on the topic, but a solid addition to the genre and a good reminder to check the lenses you use to view your relationship.

Memoir

  • The Reading Promise – A heart-warming memoir of a girl whose dad read aloud to her every day of her childhood until she went to college, and the impact that had on her upbringing.
  • Dad is Fat – I love Jim Gaffigan’s comedy in real life, but as an audio book I thought it was lacking (even though he read it himself!).  A lot of comedy is in delivery and interacting with an audience, so maybe that was it.  Still, lots of funny parts.
  • Run Like a Mother – Dated, not my style, some questionable advice–overall I didn’t find this running how-to/memoir all that helpful.
  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Sort of about running, sort of about writing, mostly about how the author’s experiences of the two disciplines inform and explain each other.  I really enjoyed this.
  • The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap – A fun and interesting memoir of a couple who decide to open a used book shop in a small town in Virginia, and how they find a place in their new community.

History

  • Asleep – Completely fascinating account of the encephalitis lethargica epidemic that occurred on the heels of the Great Flu pandemic in the early 1900s.  Scary and gripping.
  • 1177 B.C: The Year Civilization Collapsed – Overhyped, over-titled, not well-organized or well-written. Try Susan Wise Bauer instead.
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life – Fans of the Little House series will appreciate the historical insights into the real life Laura and how she came to write her semi-autobiographical fiction.

Culture and Ethics

  • The Devil Reads Derrida – A well-written, smart, highly readable unmasking of cultural blindspots from a Christian academic.  Especially recommended for those in (or with interests in) politics, academia, or the arts.
  • *The Locust Effect – Difficult to take in (in terms of content, not the writing) but critically important to understand, this book explains why justice and protection from violence are linchpins to solving problems like hunger, disease, poverty, and human trafficking.  A must read.
  • The Sunflower: The Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness – Framed around an ethical dilemma of the Holocaust, this book asks when and how forgiveness is possible, and what purpose it serves.  Thought-provoking.

Faith

  • Tell the Truth – An uncommonly helpful book on sharing your faith, with depth and as a lifestyle rather than drive-bys or tract-tossing.
  • Joy to the World – A short book of Advent activities for families, this one has some good ideas, as well as Jesse Tree details if you don’t already know about that tradition.

Time and Life Management

  • The Abundant Mama’s Guide to Savoring Slow – Solutions for living a more intentional life.
  • To Be a Runner – A detailed book on running that includes tips and helpful training insights, it’s also about how to push yourself to excellence without burning out in life.
  • Do Your Thing: How to Find Time To Do What Matters – An encouraging, realistic, and challenging impetus to take a life inventory, evaluate your life, reorder your priorities, and live on purpose.
  • Slim By Design – Fascinating account of research-based ways to tweak your life to keep pounds from creeping on.  Very helpful and super interesting.
  • 100 Days of Real Food – If you eat a Standard American Diet this book will be very helpful to you, but even if you know a lot of basics about healthy eating, this book would be a good reminder and also contains some solid recipes.
  • Leading the Life You Want – Although purporting to be a great business/balance/leadership book, the detached style and lack of unique spin made this book feel tired and derivative.  Skip it.
  • The ONE Thing – A helpful take on identifying your priority and then actually accomplishing it.

Read-Alouds

What was the best thing you read this quarter?

December 2014 Read-Alouds

mullerSome books are not suited for reading aloud. George Müller: The Children’s Champion goes in this category, in my opinion.  We read this biography aloud as part of our history studies this month, and while the content is good, it was laborious to read out loud.  I can’t put my finger on why – it just didn’t flow well for oral reading.  Next time we cycle back around to the 1800s, I’ll just assign it as independent reading.

The-Snow-Queen We recently got a free trial of Audible (and the promptly forgot to cancel it or negotiate a lower rate prior to the month rolling over–Audible loves people like us!) and in the course of our membership got a free download of The Snow Queen (it’s still free as of this writing, if you haven’t gotten it yet).  This version is quite well-narrated, and the children enjoyed it. I hadn’t heard the stories since I was a child, and it was fun to remember that I had seen a televised dramatization back then, and still remembered scenes from it as we listened.

railway-children-book-coverWe continued our E. Nesbit fandom by reading The Railway Children (note: free on Kindle, but I’m not sure if that includes the marvelous original illustrations, so perhaps better to find a library copy or buy a paper version if your e-option is unillustrated) aloud for our bedtime reading book.  It’s a fabulous adventure of a family of three kids whose father mysteriously disappears, causing the mother and children to relocate to a cottage near a railway.  Although living in straightened circumstances, the children do have some lovely times and capital scrapes and reinforce our love of early 1900s British parlance.  When I later hear my seven-year-old tell his sisters “Don’t lets be horrid to each other!  Let’s have pax!” my heart warms.  As the one who does the reading aloud, I so appreciate that Nesbit’s books have well-contained chapters.  Each chapter contains an event and a micro-story, such that you get good pacing and plot development, but still can shut the book and pack everyone off to bed.  We highly recommend the entire repertoire.

 

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The ONE Thing

one thingThe week between Christmas and the New Year is when I buckle down to review the ending year and set goals for the new one.  People differ on their approach to resolutions (or not), goal setting (or not) and continual improvement (or not).  But since all three are things I enjoy and do anyway, I tend to like books about those topics, especially at this time of year.

Having read a veritable plethora of books about habits, goals, productivity, business, planning, management, work/life balance, and the like, I have to admit that I did not find anything really ground-breaking in The One Thing.  However, the book was well written and had a good spin on familiar topics, such that I came away from reading the book feeling inspired to plan well for 2015.

The book suggests that to really excel in any area of your life, you can’t fragment your focus and just churn around doing stuff–you need to narrow your focus to the one thing that will really make a difference and move the ball down the field.  The book had great advice for identifying what your one thing is in any given category, then how to refine your goals to get there.  The section on taking big future dreams/goals and breaking them down into manageable pieces was particularly strong.

I did find some of the advice to be contradictory.  For example, the authors advocate blocking out four hours a day to work on your One Thing, but then in another part of the book they acknowledge that you’ll have a One Thing for different areas of life.  I suppose everyone has to identify which of the One Things is the really, really One Thing.  Or something.

That said, I think the general principle is a good one, and since The One Thing is interesting and fast-paced, with helpful insights well suited for New Year’s planning, I would recommend it.

Are you reading any good books on goal setting or habits to start off the New Year?

 

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The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap

little bookstoreThe Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book would be an excellent title to read along with Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop, as it’s a light and interesting real-life memoir of a couple who runs a used bookshop in a small town in Virginia.  Although rather less fraught with hoboes and espionage, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap has plenty of parallels to the Christopher Morley fiction, and lots of funny and heartwarming tales besides.

I wouldn’t say that I finished the book feeling ready to own a bookstore (that’s not on my bucket list anyway), but I did enjoy reading about the ins and outs of the author’s experience establishing her business and her place in the community.  If you like memoir or bookshops, I’d recommend The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap as a nice casual read, well suited for the breather week at the end of the year.

Am I the only person who thinks of the week between Christmas and the New Year as down time?  My husband thinks of it as a rush-around week.  Either way, I thought this was a nice book.

 

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A Story That Turns on Legal and Ethical Dilemmas

The-Children-ActIan McEwan’s novel The Children Act opens with Fiona, a 59-year-old judge in the British court system who specializes in family law.  She handles a fair share of rancorous divorces and custody disputes, but also serious ethical questions where the law demands that she issue a judgement on a child’s best interest–even if that judgement countermands one parent or a community or a set of religious beliefs.  The title of the book refers to the legal precedent for these cases, which requires the judge to consider what is most conducive to the child’s preservation of life and best interests for the future.

The judge’s caseload sometimes haunts her.  In one instance, Fiona ruled against the wishes of parents who didn’t want to separate conjoined twins, and agonizes over the twin who didn’t survive the surgery.  In another, she must choose between granting custody of two girls to their father–a member of a particular Jewish sect that doesn’t allow much education or any non-domestic opportunity for girls, or to their mother, who left that community for a more lenient sect that allows girls to attend high school and college.  A visit from her own twin nieces–giving their bitter and divorced mum a break–puts a parallel to Fiona’s decision.

In the main judicial and ethical question of the book, a nearly 18-year-old Jehovah’s Witness with leukemia wants to refuse a blood transfer, without which he will die.  Fiona struggles to decide whether to overrule the boy and his parents even as she’s grappline with her own troubled marriage and decision not to have her own children.  It’s difficult to review this book without spoilers, and I think it would make a great book club selection. Discussing the parallels between Fiona’s life and the case outcomes, or the ways in which her own life choices influence her verdicts and impact the children she rules in the interests of, would be a stimulating discussion.

If you’re interested in legal questions or ethical dilemmas, The Children Act could be for you.  It’s not a dense read, and the author of course has his own opinions on parental rights and the role of the judiciary, but I found it thought-provoking and worthwhile.  The book gets into issues of how faith impacts public ethics, and I had a good conversation with my husband about one of the cases even though he had not read the book.  I’d recommend The Children Act and would love to hear from you if you’ve read it!

 

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Two Quick, Encouraging Books for Homeschool Moms Contemplating Next Semester

simplifyIf you’re a homeschool mom thinking about next semester as you evaluate 2014 and think about goals for 2015, it might be helpful to read a couple of quick, encouraging, helpful books to spark your thinking.

I know at this time of year I usually need my vision renewed, and need some fresh ways of thinking about problems.  I found these two books by Tamara Chilver: Simplify Your Homeschool Day: Shorten Your Day, Sweeten Your Time and Grace for the Homeschool Mom helpful in this respect.

The books are short and easy to read in small bits of time, making them ideal for the holidays.  I got the Kindle versions of both on free download days, and found them easy to engage with even reading on my phone (this is not Grace for the Homeschool Mom bookalways the case).  Although the books are short, they are full of practical advice balanced with enough vision to make them hopeful and uplifting.

The best takeaways I got from these books were subtle shifts in how I see certain challenges.  Because I’m educating these same kids every day, I get used to framing situations one way, and often my thinking needs to be jarred so I can get out of my well worn tracks.  The solutions I noted were not of the “buy an extensive and expensive new curriculum!” or “overhaul your entire life” variety, but simple things.  One of my eureka moments involved a suggestion about drinking a glass of water.  And yet, as I thought about it, I realized that was a pretty good reframing for a struggle I often have.  I also got good reminders about how my own focus impacts my kids’ ability to stay on task.

While they aren’t comprehensive how-to guides,Simplify Your Homeschool Day and Grace for the Homeschool Mom are perfect for homeschool moms who basically know what they are about but need some encouragement.  If you’re looking for a little bit of a mid-year pep talk, Tamara Chilver’s books may be just the thing.

 

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Two Quick, Fun Books for Your Holiday Week

parnassusIf you’re looking for something light and quick to read this week, I’d recommend Parnassus On Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop, two books chronicling the mysteries and adventures besetting a couple of droll booksellers in the early 1900s.

The first book involves a traveling bookshop housed in a gypsy wagon of sorts called Parnassus on Wheels.  The characters get into scrapes of all sorts but everything works out in the end.  The second book finds our intrepid booksellers planted in Brooklyn, running the bookshop, now called Parnassus at Home, from a building “that had been the joy of several generations of plumbers and cockroaches.”

haunted bookshopThese books are good, clean fun.  I found several memorable quotes about reading, such as: “malnutrition of the reading faculty is a serious thing,” and “it’s a good thing to turn your mind upside down now and then, like an hour-glass, to let the particles run the other way.”  I also learned a new word, librocubicularist, which refers to a person who is fond of reading in bed.

Both books are available for free as audio downloads on Librivox, if you’d rather listen than read.

When you go to a second hand bookstore, what do you look for?  Have you ever found something you didn’t know you were seeking?

 

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The Zone of Interest

zoneThere are a lot of books about the Holocaust–fiction and non-fiction, diaries and philosophy, historical and cultural analysis–and so any writer of fiction who enters that territory, I think, must face a steep challenge to surprise the reader, and to challenge him or her to think more deeply about what is a very well-covered piece of the past.

The Zone of Interest accomplishes that in a remarkable way.  The story, set in a concentration camp, is billed as a love story, but I think that’s a superficial explanation.  Rather, I’d say it’s a nearly allegorical quest to understand how people react when an external moral or ethical framework is removed.

At one point in the book, the main character remarks that the German people had given up honor, freedom, truth, and other virtues, and in other passages characters remark on how traditional civil or Christian ethics have gone by the wayside.  Left without a moral framework, the author seems to say, people resort to arbitrary and ridiculous rules, and love and trust become nearly impossible.  Amis uses descriptions of life under these circumstances to renew the reader’s understanding of the Holocaust and its horror.

Simultaneously, Amis explores the question of why some people stood up to tyranny, and why so many people did not.  I thought his take on this serious philosophical question was nuanced and illuminating.  Using a rich cast of characters, Amis acknowledges that some people, left to themselves, are sadistic and cruel.  Others are simple sheep who believe whatever they hear and do what they are told.  But his real subject is the vast middle.  People who knew good and well what they were smelling even 60 miles away from a concentration camp, when the snow fell brown with ashes.  People who “went along, doing all we could to drag our feet and scuff the carpets and scratch the parquet, but we went along.”  People who saw the evil and let it go: “what, even that? Yes, that too. Let it go. Oh, let it go.”

Amis’ characters in the middle struggle with who they are in the face of Nazi Germany.  The title, which at one level is the term the Nazis use to refer to the concentration camp, takes on a deeper personal meaning.  “Under National Socialism,” one character says, “you looked in the mirror and saw your soul.  You found yourself out….who somebody really was.  That was the zone of interest.”  The main character, who at first just seems like a privileged playboy, turns out to be seriously and dangerously critical to a sabotage effort that ends the war a year earlier than might have happened otherwise.  However, after the war is over, he considers his effort in light of the fact that while he was engaged in this effort, 35,000 people were nonetheless killed at the concentration camp where he worked.

Amis does not offer easy answers.  But his writing is incisive and made me think more critically about myself and my own culture.  How often do I see something going wrong and simply “scuff the carpets and scratch the parquet?”  Where am I complacent and apathetic?  As my culture moves away from established external frameworks–Judeo-Christian morality or even traditional standards of civil morality, where do I feel like nothing I say matters so I’ll hunker down with my little community and let it go?

The questions the book raises are not how can people be so evilv or should Nazis be forgiven, but rather why did the people in the middle [the majority] react as they did, and how should they deal with the fact that they did not do more?  When faced with a slow slide into decay, what should be our response?  It’s easy to say you wouldn’t have been a sadistic concentration camp commandant, to credit yourself from your armchair that you would have risked it all in resistance.  This book confronts the reader with the fact that he or she would more likely have been–and more likely is today–in the middle, and asks whether limited efforts are justifiable.

The Zone of Interest is a difficult book to read.  Remember the moral vacuum?  That will hit you hard. However, if you can read with an eye toward what the vacuous talk and casual brutality represent on a deeper moral level, this book will open up a profound and valuable perspective on this part of history.  A book club with a willingness to get into deeper themes and topics would find no lack of discussion points in this book, but it’s not a light read, nor something I’d recommend for younger readers.

I’ve given The Zone of Interest a lot of thought in the days since I read it, which I think is a mark of good fiction.  It would be a good companion piece to read alongside something philosophical like The Sunflower, or really any number of other Holocaust books.  It’s a worthwhile addition to the body of work seeking to understand that subject, and I’d recommend it with the caveats stated above.

 

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Leading the Life You Want

leading

With an appealing title, best seller status, and glowing reviews from all sorts of respectable sources, I expected great things from Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life.

However, to put it simply: if you have ever read anything on leadership, business, and work/life balance, you won’t learn anything new from this book.  At all.

At several points I had to double check to make sure I hadn’t read the book before, because it sounded so familiar.  Even the examples Friedman uses – especially Tom Tierney and Sheryl Sandberg–are so well known that you’ve probably already gotten their stories multiple times.

But a lot of books in this genre are derivative and cover basically the same information.  What’s different about this one?  After thinking about it, I decided that what bugged me most was the detached style.  The writing is not compelling and nearly every example or point is made by referencing a second hand account.  It’s a quote from Sandberg’s book, or an anecdote taken from a magazine article, or something the person said in a television interview–not first hand research or narrative.  Maybe this was the author’s attempt at scholarly attribution, but even very academic authors find ways to cite sources without bogging down every paragraph.

As you may have guessed, I only finished Leading the Life You Want because it was an upstairs book, and I never remember to keep a backup up there.

Although I’m panning this volume and don’t recommend it, I will say that if you’ve never read anything else on the topic the information is not incorrect.  I just didn’t get anything new from it, nor a fresh perspective on what I already know.

 

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