Year in Books 2015

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We are ringing in the new year with an epic bout of stomach flu, so my plans to take down the Christmas decorations, make Hannah’s birthday cake, and start my new goals with a bang have been scrapped.  Instead, I’m washing bedding, cleaning carpet, snuggling a sad toddler, and delivering cups of ginger ale in between nibbling Saltines myself.  The change of plans is fitting enough, since my word for 2016 is “hush.”  Hush the hustle, hush the online noise (contributing and consuming), hush the need to be doing big things all the time.  I think 2016 is going to be a year of more small things, and of bringing my best to the people, callings, and work I have before me rather than always assuming I should be doing something bigger.

As regular readers doubtless notice, it’s a pendulum swing from last year, when I chose the words “double down” as my theme. I actually wrote, “I think I may be ready for a push year.”  Ha!  Good thing I fancied myself ready for that, since 2015 was, in fact, a push year in every single respect.

In part because of the aforementioned doubling down, I didn’t read as many books in 2015 as I have in years previous–I wound up the year at 115 of my books and an additional 63 long books read aloud to the kids or in order to discuss with the kids.  But I read a lot of excellent, worthy books in all categories so I feel good about it overall.

I went back through my reviews to identify the ten books that had the most impact on my life or were incredible standouts.  These are the ones I am still thinking about, the ideas that I acted on with greatest results, and the books that I’d recommend most highly. The links below are to my longer reviews.

Best Fiction

  • Station Eleven – This masterfully composed story combines a compelling plot and great writing with nuanced exploration of themes like truth, beauty, and deep connections.  Perfect for a book club discussion (although, sadly, I missed mine).
  • The Tsar of Love and Techno – I don’t usually love short stories, but this collection interweaves characters and perspectives into a whole that nearly forms a novel. The author’s rich settings, skillful characterization, and depiction of how destruction and redemption can coexist in families make this book amazing.

Best Read-Aloud

  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry – When it comes to read-alouds, the very best not only contain great stories and excellent writing, but also lead to incredible discussions.  This book did just that, and added considerable depth to our understanding of prejudice in general, but especially in the interwar American South.

Best Parenting Tool

  • Nurture by Nature – This book helps parents figure out their child’s personality type, then gives practical tips for how to effectively parent and interact with that child in light of his or her temperament.  It’s exceptionally useful to know these things, whether you have one child or several.

Best Life Management

  • Make It Happen – If you’re looking for a tool to dig deeply into the roots of your life–who you are, what your purpose is, what brings you joy–this is the book for you. I was seriously impressed and am using the author’s goal setting framework (PowerSheets) in 2016. They work well with the concepts found in the book, but the book alone could easily revolutionize how you approach your year.
  • Contentment – It didn’t knock me upside the head when I first read it, but one of the concepts I got out of this book wound up having a profound impact on my year. The reminder that online interaction is often false community radically changed my attitude toward my real life and shifted how I think about and use social media.

Best Work-Life Balance

  • Overwhelmed – You might think with a title like Overwhelmed this would be a book long on whining and short on solutions. You’d be wrong. I’m still thinking about the concepts in this book months after reading it, and found the author’s frameworks and challenges shifted the way I think about my life and priorities.

Best Organizing

  • The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up – I know it’s so overplayed that it’s become a cliche, but this book really did radically change how I think about and store my stuff. I tend to veer toward minimalism anyway at this stage of my life, but even so I found inspiration and paradigm shifts that made a big difference in my life.

Best Spiritual Life

  • Prayer – Striking a near-perfect balance between rigorous scholarship and practical application, this book revolutionized the way I approach my devotional life–both in prayer and reading/studying the Bible.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.
  • A Path Through Suffering – This book hit me at the perfect time (I read it while I was recuperating from a medical situation) but it’s so forthright and applicable to any circumstances that I don’t hesitate to recommend it highly to everyone.  This is an excellent book for how to deal with your messy, far-from-ideal, actual real life in a God-honoring way.

What were the best books you read in 2015? What titles are you most anticipating in the new year? I’m looking forward to reading with you in 2016!

Notes From a Small Island

notes from a small islandIf you enjoy travelogues and/or have a deep and abiding love for Britain, I highly, highly recommend that you read Bill Bryson’s excellent Notes from a Small Island.

Bryson, an American who went to live in England just after college, married an English girl, and raised a family there for twenty years, undertook a weeks long trek around the island prior to moving back to the US.  His documentation of the trip is funny, interesting, and clearly the work of a committed Anglophile.

I enjoyed reading of Bryson’s adventures and determined that I’ll have to re-read the book if I ever get the chance to make a lengthy trip to England myself.  While I wouldn’t want to follow the exact same itinerary or see the same things necessarily, I think the book would give some good ideas for a long trip.

My favorite part of the book came at the end, when Bryson’s wife picks him up from the train station and they drive home.  He sees his stone house, which was built before American independence, and the church in his town, which was built before Columbus set foot in the new world, and reckons how lovely it is to return home after a journey and how much he loves this part of the world.

Notes from a Small Island is a fun, touching, and delightful read, and I highly recommend it.

 

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Short Stories

Coming on the heels of The Tsar of Love and Techno, which I loved and thought was masterfully conceived and well-written, I read two other short story collections. One was good and the other was a massive disappointment.

a-good-man-is-hard-to-find1I had previously read many of the stories from Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories but hadn’t ever read the full collection.  I liked it, but wasn’t bowled over or anything.  I do admire O’Connor’s style, although I find it a bit heavy-handed at times.

If you’re looking for some Flannery O’Connor, I would actually recommend her book of essays Mystery and Manners instead–it gets at a lot of her philosophy of writing and creativity, and would also shed some light on the stories if you do wind up reading them.

thatcherMy extreme disappointment with Hilary Mantel’s short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories, most likely stems from the fact that Mantel is an exceptional novelist. Her books Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are among my all time favorites, primarily because of her penetrating style and ability to write unbelievably layered prose and plots in an effortless way that balances being gorgeous with readability.  But I think the reason I love her style so much is her ability to pull off those skills in a long-form story.  In short stories, it felt thinner, more brittle, less insightful.  The stories were fine.  At the end of each one I found myself saying, “OK” rather than “that was incredible.”  So if you haven’t read any of Mantel’s previous work I would not recommend Assassination be your first foray, lest you wonder what all the fuss is about and skip Wolf Hall or Bring Up.  If you loved those books, you likely will read Assassination no matter what, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

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Witnesses of War

witnesses of warHaving read widely on the topic of World War II, especially recently, I found that Witnesses of War still stood out for it’s unique perspective in tracing the events of World War II and its aftermath through the eyes of children involved in the conflict.  From kids who grew to teenagers in the Hitler Youth to children from the ghettos and concentration camps, the book looks at diaries, letters, and drawings to build a narrative of how the war looked to impressionable and adaptable young people.

The whole book is worthwhile, but it’s particularly strong in its depiction of post-war life.  I learned a lot from the author’s insight into how kids dealt with the aftermath of the war.  Adults had memories of pre-war life, and a framework for imagining peace.  Children who had grown up steeped in Nazi ideology or bearing the brunt of occupation and persecution had to reimagine everything.

Stargardt’s excellent scholarship and readable style made Witnesses of War a fascinating and worthwhile account, and I’d recommend it if you’re interested in the time period.

 

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Unfinished Business

unfinished-businessUnfinished Business is Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book-length follow-up to her viral article Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.  You probably remember that Slaughter left her high-level State Department policy job to return to her tenured position as a Dean at Princeton when her teenaged son needed her to be home more than weekends.  I thought the article was refreshingly honest, but the book seemed long and lacking in fresh ideas.

Slaughter did identify some important points such as the role our internalized assumptions play in our decisions about work and family, and the need to have a primary parent figure at home to support a big career. In contrast to many work-life balance narratives, Slaughter points out that Americans like to feel in control , so it appeals to us to believe that our careers and family planning are within our control. But life often intervenes and things don’t line up the way we planned.  We may not want the same things at 35 that we did at 25.  Slaughter’s suggestion is, therefore, to plot a course for the greatest measure of flexibility so you’ll have more options when things fall apart, as they likely will.

But what does that look like in practice?  How do you advise your college-aged daughter about career paths? The book is a little vague on this point.  And the policy prescriptions are kind of vague too, which surprised me since Slaughter is a policy person.  She suggests that most workplaces can and should be more flexible. OK, but what is the incentive for the employer to do things that way, especially when it’s a major culture shift?  How could corporations be incentivized to pay more than lip service to life balance without taking major financial risks in an already tight economic situation? And what do we mean by flexibility? My version? Yours? Who decides what a healthy balance is? For some people balance means making it home for a bedtime story every night.  For others it’s being available to help with homework.  My flexibility includes 20-30 hours a week to homeschool and a couple of hours of reading aloud to my kids most days. How can a corporation build in an equitable framework that suits all of these disparate definitions of balance?

Slaughter also suggests that we should not undervalue care as a way to spend time.  That’s a great idea as far as it goes.  But if our society decided to value care (childcare, elder care, etc) equally with competition (banking, law, manufacturing, etc) how on earth would we pay for that and make it equitable?  The reason we don’t pay a lot for daycare workers is that we give those jobs to a wider range of people, versus a brain surgeon who had to go to nearly a decade of schooling and intense training to do her job.  Professionalized care does exist–people with means already hire nannies with relevant degrees and experience–but lots of people are priced out.  If a woman is earning an average salary, which is something like $38,000 per year, how much can she afford to pay for childcare before it just stops making sense for her to work at all?

So what is the primary good we are shooting for here?  Is it for women to be in the workforce instead of at home? In that case we could potentially subsidize care for all but the wealthiest families.  Or is our goal to allow those who WANT to be caregivers in some capacity at some point in time to be compensated for that work? In that case I guess we could extend government paychecks to stay-at-home parents so that their work is valued in the economy.  Would either of those options build the economy enough to justify the expenditure?

These are the questions I’m left with after reading the book–they aren’t addressed in the text.

Unfinished Business is does effectively establish a problem–the title refers to the fact that feminism, or something else, has more work to do–and offers a few potential solutions, but I think overall I’d recommend that you read Slaughter’s article and then read Overwhelmed for ideas about how other countries tackle this issue or I Know How She Does It for thoughts on solutions you could apply to your own situation apart from wholesale policy changes.

 

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A big fiction hodge-podge

Spool-of-Blue-ThreadAnne Tyler is one of my favorite authors because of her keen observations and her extraordinary ability to find the nobility and worthy stories within ordinary families. Her book A Spool of Blue Thread is no exception. The novel is delightful and funny, but also a poignant exploration of what goes on beneath the surface in families. The complexities of long-term marriages, the push and pull of rebellious and distant children, simmering sibling relationships,and the reality of growing older are just some of the topics Tyler explores in the book.  As the family’s story unfolds, the reader is reminded how little we understand the depth and motivations of those around us–even our closest family members–and the need to extend grace and forgiveness wherever we can.  Highly recommended.

tsarThe Tsar of Love and Techno is a really strong collection of interwoven short stories by the author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I don’t always love short story collections because they don’t satisfy like a novel, but Marra’s decision to layer his stories in a connected way made for an excellent read. Set in different generations in Russia and Chechnya, the stories remind the reader how connected our actions are to others’ lives, and how even the most lonely and seemingly reprobate individual can be loved and redeemed.

leaving berlinI highly recommend Joseph Kanon’s excellent spy mystery Leaving Berlin. Set in post-World War II Berlin during the airlift, when the Soviets and Germans and Americans and everyone else were running agents and able to travel more or less freely between the city sectors, the book is fast-paced and the mystery is really well plotted.  Apart from one entirely gratuitously detailed bedroom scene, the book is otherwise well-written and super interesting from a historical perspective as well as being entertaining.

 

the lake houseI’ve enjoyed Kate Morton’s previous books and so I gobbled up The Lake House at an astounding rate.  Morton just nails mysteries and combines them with historical fiction and (usually) English country houses.  It’s a compilation of genres that works, and Morton is an expert. I only figured out part of the mystery before it was revealed, which made me happy.  This would be a PERFECT book for your end of year reading, assuming you have some free time between Christmas and New Years.  You’ll need the time, because you won’t put this book down.

8484 Charing Cross Road is a darling set of letters between the author and a British book seller.  The author, an impoverished bibliophile at the outset and a successful writer at the end, gets to know the charming staff at the London book shop she enlists to find the books on her list.  Eventually she becomes part of their lives, sending care packages during World War II shortages and rationing and always planning a visit that never transpires.  This short book would also make a good break week read.

 

THE CATS TABLEI felt I should have liked The Cat’s Table. The author also wrote The English Patient and the subject matter could have been interesting, but instead I was deeply bored and only pushed through because one of my book clubs was reading it.  And then I missed the meeting anyway. Overall the events in the book seemed random and pointless, and the characters weren’t very compelling, at least to me.  Let me know if you’ve read this and think I missed something critical!

 

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Two Basically Unrelated Histories

In the ongoing vein of categorizing my reviews by type, I give you: histories.  Well, one is historical fiction, but it is very researchy, so I am counting it as a history in a novel costume rather than the other way ’round.  If you’re a reader of historical fiction, you’ll know what I mean by that difference.  Other than the nod to history, however, these two books are unrelated.  Sorry about that.

sunne in splendorAt 932 pages, Sharon Kay Penman’s historical novel The Sunne In Splendour: A Novel of Richard III, spanning the Wars of the Roses through the Battle of Bosworth Field is nothing if not comprehensive. As I have mentioned before about Penman’s novels, they suffer for being three times too long and from the author’s annoying penchant for using the phrase “for certes” overmuch (presumably to add a note of medieval-ness to otherwise modern diction?). Penman certainly does her research–if anything the book veers too far toward a novelized history rather than conforming to historical fiction conventions. As a die-hard Anglophile I did enjoy this book, but would still recommend Alison Weir’s books on the timeframe more (see The Princes in the TowerA Dangerous InheritanceElizabeth of York) even though Weir and Penman disagree somewhat in their interpretations of the historical record.

Mornings on HorsebackMornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt tells the story of TR’s childhood up through his second marriage, with an emphasis on his family and upbringing that I found really fascinating.  When we study famous people in school, I try to find biographies that cover the person’s childhood, because it’s engaging for the kids.  Many of the incidents we read about for school were also covered in McCullough’s history, although in more detail as you’d expect.  I listened to the book in audio format, which was fine apart from some points where the narrator attempted accents and couldn’t quite pull them off.  Overall, I find histories the easiest books to listen to on audio.  With fiction I want to actually see and enjoy the words, and with self-help books I want to take notes, but with history it works to hear the book read instead.

Have you read any good histories (or historical fiction) lately?

 

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A few books on the science, philosophy, and mysteries of the mind

I’m on a spree of categorizing my books read this month – and I’m linking this one up at QuickLit. It’s interesting in hindsight how I tend to read in sets without planning it that way in advance. As I looked over my list of recent reads, I noticed that a few were on the mind, but from different perspectives.

mind changeIn Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains, Susan Greenfield leverages her background in philosophy and neuroscience to explore the ever increasing field of research into how technology impacts and changes our brains.  Greenfield is not a Luddite–she discusses positive aspects of screen use and presents a balanced view of research findings–but she doesn’t pull any punches about the implications of the facts.  If you’ve read much on this topic it won’t really surprise you–computers, smart phones, video games, social media, and the like have a significant effect on how we think, read, and solve problems.  As Greenfield points out, these technologies aren’t going away, but if we understand them and their impact on ourselves and our kids, we can be smart and intentional about technology use in light of what sort of society we want to live in and what sort of people we want to be.

world-beyond-your-headThe World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction comes at the problem of what modern life is doing to our brains from a different, more philosophical angle.  Instead of asking, “Should we use technology?” this book asks “How is our culture impacting our ability to pay attention, and what does that mean for our way of life?”  I appreciated that the author, an academic, wrote a book of philosophy while maintaining a highly readable style.  If you have a background in philosophy, you’ll like how Crawford traces our current problem of attention back through the logical consequences of previous philosophical breakthroughs, but even if you’re coming to the topic cold Crawford’s style won’t overwhelm you and will certainly give you a lot to think about.

fermat's enigmaFermat’s Enigma combines an interesting history of mathematicians with the intriguing story of how mathematics’ most interesting problem was finally solved.  I love learning how math works if I don’t have to actually sit there and do the tedious work of adding and multiplying, so I really enjoyed reading about the different mathematicians who contributed to the problem’s solution, and the proofs and breakthroughs that advanced the study of math along the way.  Plus the problem was finally solved by a Princeton professor, so, school pride!  Not that I can really claim any personal connection to the math department, seeing as how I fell off the wagon at Calculus 104 and never made it to the cool stuff.  Still, this is a great book if you’re interested in the subject, and I’d recommend it.

rising-strong-book-coverBrene Brown’s latest book, Rising Strong, explores the way we think about our circumstances through the stories we tell, and how we can take control of those stories to live more “wholehearted” lives.

While I didn’t find it as helpful as her previous works, I did think the story framework was interesting. I’ve always called this “narrating” my life, and didn’t realize everyone did so, but that makes sense.  I’ve noticed before that my stories are not always accurate, and it does take a huge effort to unpack why I’m crafting my explanatory story one way or another.  Brown’s insight will help people who haven’t considered this aspect of thinking, and her suggestions could be really powerful impetus to corral your thoughts and change the trajectory of your thinking so you can have healthier relationships and a better outlook on life.

Have you read anything interesting along these lines recently?

 

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A Few Books on Faith

sufferingI have a hard time identifying with the term suffering, because the word seems loaded with comparison. Even when we do feel like we are suffering, it can be hard to talk about it or admit it to others because it seems a little lame compared to the far worse things others deal with.

That’s why I loved Elisabeth Elliot’s book A Path Through Suffering.  She doesn’t mess with platitudes about being glad that at least you aren’t as bad off as so-and-so.  Rather, she defines suffering as “having what you don’t want or wanting what you don’t have.”  Even mild trouble ought to be handled the same way as debilitating and tragic loss, because “if we don’t learn to refer the little thing to God, how shall we learn to refer the big ones?”

The book is simply chock full of convicting, encouraging words on dealing with the discomforts of life in a godly way. There is so much wisdom on how to navigate day-to-day living.  I took copious notes and am using them as I work on my goals for next year.

I may choose A Path Through Suffering as one of my top books of this year.  Highly, highly recommended.

disciplineIn Discipline: The Glad Surrender, Elisabeth Elliot offers an interesting perspective on several disciplines of life.  While she touches on some that probably come to mind, the book tackles these subjects from a different perspective than you usually find.  Rather than prescribing a set of rules, Elliot gets into heart attitudes on topics like controlling your thoughts, being disciplined with your time, and not letting your feelings run away with you.  I found all of the topics extremely helpful and thought-provoking, and would also recommend this volume.  I’m finding it helpful in setting priorities for next year, but it would be a rich resource any time.

savorFor my Bible study in November I worked through Savor & Establish, a study on Philippians with a focus on thankfulness. I thought it was perfect for the month, especially as I feel like I have more than the usual things to be grateful for this season. I’m not sure how long this will be available, but for the time being you can get a copy of the study free when you subscribe to MacKenzie Monroe’s website. It’s well worth it!

worldTheologian R.C. Sproul has a series of short books dealing with critical questions of faith, all of which are free on Kindle. I read How Should I Live in This World?, which is an application of biblical frameworks to popular ethical quandaries.  Sproul succinctly describes how to apply principles from the Bible to these questions, without being blinded by our culture or time period.

The book is very short for the topic it covers.  If you’re interested in really deep exegesis and detailed philosophical application, this might not be the book for you.  But if you just want a quick hit I think it’s a fairly solid choice.

LoveComesNear_8.5x11-Cover-232x300I am so glad I purchased Jenni Keller’s latest book Love Comes Near: An Advent Bible Study. I’ve gotten a lot out of her previous studies, and although this one is structured differently I am really, really enjoying it.

Unlike Keller’s previous work, Love Comes Near doesn’t cover one book of the Bible.  Instead, Keller selected Advent-related passages for each day.  I’m appreciating the reminder to keep my focus on Advent.

But the best part of the study is Keller’s inclusion of a shorter version of each day’s study geared towards kids.  I love this!  It’s a perfect way to get my three big kids more practice looking up Bible passages, plus good kid-level discussion questions, and a passage to copy out each day (sneaky copywork/handwriting practice!!!).  I wish I could find more studies like this for us to do throughout the year.

What books or studies on faith have you enjoyed lately?

 

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Fiction vs. Non-fiction: Vichy France

I often say that reading a good piece of fiction can teach you more about a historical time period or series of events than non-fiction, but that’s not always so.  Case in point: my recent reading on the Resistance in France during World War II.

village-of-secretsHaving appreciated Caroline Moorehead’s book A Train in Winter last month, I listened to the audio version of her next work, Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France.

As in her previous book, this one covered lesser known aspects of the French resistance during World War II. This time, Moorehead turns to a small, isolated area where Huguenots and other Protestants had fled long before to ensure that they could safely practice their faith. With a history of keeping quiet, having large extended families, and reading the Old Testament, the families in the region turned out to be excellent at hiding Jews during the war.

But even in that subculture there were disagreements over methods and goals, and the stories of that time period differ depending on who you ask. Moorehead did an excellent job of sorting first hand accounts and records to document the “competing wars of memory” found even now among survivors and residents.  The book is well worth your time if you’re interested in World War II history.

nightingaleI wonder if I would have enjoyed The Nightingale more if I hadn’t read it hot on the heels of Moorehead’s fascinating and highly engaging non-fiction.  As it was, Kristin Hannah’s novel read a bit flat.  I wonder if she used Moorehead’s books as background research, because she incorporated many similar elements, but her two main characters were not likeable and seemed two-dimensional.  You know it’s bad when a character dies and clearly it’s supposed to be a tear-jerker but all you think is “well, that’s a relief.”

Lots of people loved this book, so maybe it was just bad timing for me, but I think the flimsy characters would still have bothered me.

In any case, having read both genres back-to-back, I’d have to recommendA Train in Winter and Village of Secrets much more highly than The Nightingale.

Do you make it a habit to read about the same thing in different genres? Which do you usually prefer?

 

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