Monday, December 31, 2012

a year of reading voraciously

This post lists the books I've read this past year, with brief descriptions and reviews (out of five stars).   I hope you find some things here that you might like to read -- or, if you have already read them, to talk about with me!
If you make it all the way to the end, you'll see that I've also listed my 5 favourite pieces of music from 2012.



The Cellist of Sarajevo (Steven Galloway).  After a food-line bombing in Sarajevo kills 22 people, a cellist goes to the site every day for 22 days to play Albinoni's "Adagio."  This gripping book focuses on the female counter-sniper assigned to protect the cellist, and on two other men who live in the city.  It chronicles their reactions to war and their moral choices -- particularly the choice whether to become more or less human in the face of hatred and violence. * * * *

The Lost Garden (Helen Humphreys).  (Re-read this for book study group.)  A beautifully written story about an insecure young woman in WWII England who goes to a country estate to lead a team of girls growing crops for the war effort.  She encounters friendship, love, and a mysterious hidden garden which she restores.  * * * * *

The Sisters Brothers (Patrick deWitt).  Weird western novel about two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who are hired assassins.  This book has a very original style and the narrator, Eli, is appealing.  Yet my reaction when I was done was, "Hmm, that was different" -- that's about it.  * *

The Rest of Her Life (Laura Moriarty).  This is one of three books I read this year by Moriarty, who's become one of my favourite authors.  When Leigh's daughter Kara gets in a car accident that kills another girl, Leigh is forced to face her strained relationship with Kara and with her own estranged mother.  * * * *

While I'm Falling (Laura Moriarty).  College student Veronica struggles to deal with her parents' divorce, school, and other challenges.  When she gets in trouble one night and calls her mother for help, her mother acts strangely and refuses -- only to show up later at Veronica's dorm needing help from her.  * * * *

The Chaperone (Laura Moriarty).   Set in the 1920's, this book focuses on Cora, a well-to-do housewife whose life looks perfect from the outside.  She accompanies a local girl to New York City, where the girl (soon-to-be screen icon Louise Brooks) is attending a dance school.  Cora uses the opportunity of being in New York to seek information about her own past as a child in a city orphanage.  Excellent novel; I loved it.   * * * * *

A Song for Nettie Johnson (Gloria Sawai).  A set of interconnected short stories about a Saskatchewan town.  We read the title story for our book study group; it focuses on the relationship between a reclusive "mad woman," the town drunk who is asked to direct the church's production of Handel's Messiah, and the minister and other townspeople.  * * * *

Death Comes to Pemberley (P.D. James).  This is a "sequel" to Pride and Prejudice.  Elizabeth's sister Lydia arrives at Pemberley crying that her husband, Wickham, is dead.  It turns out that a different man has been killed; how he died is the mystery of the book.  This book is all talk, no action:  I quickly got bored with the slow pace, stilted style, and interminable speeches, and I skimmed the last third just to get it over with.  *

Cold Mountain (Charles Frazier).  Inman, an injured Civil War soldier, leaves the battlefield to walk home to his sweetheart, Ada, in North Carolina.  The book is divided equally between Inman's journey and Ada's struggle to work the farm that her father, a preacher, left her when he died.  A beautiful love story with vivid descriptions of people and places.  Frazier is such a good writer:  I read his Nightwoods last year and it was excellent too.  * * * * *

The Beginner's Goodbye (Anne Tyler).  Aaron is struggling to get over the sudden death of his wife Dorothy.  When she begins to appear to him at random times and places, he is able to reminisce honestly about their relationship and find closure.  This is not a very realistic book (Aaron seems more like an elderly man from the 1950's than a 36-year-old in 2012), and Tyler seems to be repeating her previous novel, Noah's Compass:  hapless, clueless man gets fussed over by the women in his life, bla bla bla.  * *

The Forgotten Garden (Kate Morton).  In 1913, a four-year-old girl is abandoned on a ship sailing from England to Australia.  She is taken in and raised by a kindly dockmaster yet always longs to discover her true identity.  Years later, after her death, her granddaughter takes up the search.  This was an excellent novel -- a satisfying combination of mystery, romance, and fairy tale -- and I'm eager to read more of Morton's books.   * * * * *

House of Mirth (Edith Wharton).  (Re-read.)  Tragic but wonderfully written story of the beautiful Lily Bart, who longs for the security of a rich marriage but who, through a combination of fate and her own choices, finds her dreams slipping through her fingers.   This is probably one of my 5 favourite books of all time.  * * * * *

Austenland and Midnight in Austenland (Shannon Hale).  These two novels have different protagonists, each of them a woman who travels to a resort called Austenland for "an immersive Jane Austen experience."  The books are witty, fun, and sweet, and I'd recommend both, though I liked Midnight the better of the two.  But  the formula becomes a  bit stale; I'm not sure I'd read a third. * * *

Left Neglected (Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice).   The hectic life of busy supermom Sarah is halted when she has a car accident that leaves her brain-injured and unaware of anything on the left side of her body.  Interesting information about a fascinating, rare syndrome.  The story is pretty compelling as well, though kind of neat and tidy.  * * *

Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen).  This was the only Jane Austen novel I hadn't read before (which is probably true of many people).  It's very funny and ironic.   Innocent, artless Catherine Morland is drawn into the whirlwind of social life in Bath.  Among all the people she encounters there (including the conniving Thorpes), she is fortunate to meet Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor, who are kind to her.  When the Tilneys' intimidating father invites Catherine to their estate -- Northanger Abbey -- her addiction to romance novels threatens her budding relationship with Henry.  Will their friendship end, or will it become something more?  (I also watched a movie version of the book this year, with Felicity Jones absolutely perfect as sweet, naive Catherine.)  * * * *

Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks).  This fascinating novel is based on a true story:  in 1666, when the Plague is brought into a small English village  by a clothmaker from London, the villagers decide (at the urging of their charismatic minister) to quarantine themselves to prevent its spread.  The story is told from the perspective of a young widowed housemaid, Anna Frith.  We did this book in our book study group and had a very interesting discussion of God's role in human suffering and of how Christianity is depicted in the novel.   * * * *

Gold (Chris Cleave).  Zoe and Kate are best friends and Olympic-level cycling rivals.  Zoe is single and solitary, driven by rage and grief over her past; Kate, who is married to another cyclist, is torn between her Olympic aspirations and the needs of her sick eight-year-old daughter.  Cleave does a great job of depicting the high-stress world of an elite athlete, and of getting into the minds of all his characters.  A true "couldn't-put-it-down" novel. * * * * *

And on my to-read-next pile:  After by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and  The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey (I read Livesey's The House on Fortune Street a few years ago and liked it very much).


Tommy Douglas [from the "Extraordinary Canadians" series] (Vincent Lam).  This brief biography of Douglas contains one of the best quotes I've read in a long time:
      "To most Canadians, it has become a core part of our national ethos that health care should be equally available to all regardless of ability to pay.  It seems intuitively to be fair and right.  The corollary is that we accept a collective responsibility to fund this service with our tax dollars.  When we worry that we may lack a national identity, we sometimes pay universal health care a backhanded compliment by grousing that this, of all things, is the one feature of our nation that is almost universally supported.  Perhaps we feel a little embarrassed that a social service has become a defining part of our collective psyche.  We should not sell this notion short.  Although there are certainly other ideas and institutions that we could strengthen as part of our national identity, our belief in universal health care constitutes a strong statement about our nation's values.  The notion that all Canadians should have access to high-quality health care on an equal basis is an assertion that all human lives have equal value, and that a civilized nation should be collectively concerned for the health and welfare of its citizens."  * * * *

The World of Downton Abbey.  I got hooked on this excellent TV series last year and have watched both the season 1 and 2 dvd's.  This companion book gives lots of behind-the-scenes detail about the making of the series as well as what life would have been like for the servants and the aristocracy in the pre-to-post-WWI period.  * * * *

Daphne DuMaurier:  The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller (Margaret Forster).  Interesting biography of a complex woman for whom to write was to live (and whose Rebecca is another of my top-5-of-all-time novels). * * *

One Thousand Gifts (Ann Voskamp).  Voskamp writes about how she discovered gratitude as the key to joy and as a daily spiritual practice.  She has a unique style that is more like poetry than prose; it cuts through cliches to the struggle and pain of the life of faith. * * * *

Through the Glass (Shannon Moroney).  Moroney tells of how her life shattered when her husband, to whom she'd been married for only one month, was arrested for sexual assault.  This is an excellent book.  I heard Moroney speak at Kingston Writersfest this year as well; she gave a very compelling talk about her experience and particularly about forgiveness. 
* * * * *

Creating a Spiritual Legacy (Daniel Taylor).  This book focuses on the importance of passing our stories on to others.  Gives advice, insights, and examples of how to generate, tell, collect, and share our stories. * * * *

The Poetry Home Repair Manual (Ted Kooser).  This is a book full of helpful, interesting advice on writing and editing one's poetry.  It was by far the best book of the several I read this year on writing.  (I didn't keep track of the other titles.)   * * * * *

Who is This Man?:  The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus (John Ortberg).  I got this for Christmas and have just gotten into it; so far it's excellent.  The book explores the unparalleled impact Jesus has had on human history, thought, and behaviour.


(Click on the titles to listen.)

  1. "Somebody Loved" by the Weepies.   I first heard this song on the soundtrack of the movie "Adam" with Hugh Dancy, about a young man with Asperger Syndrome.   It's a gentle, simple song with great images.

  1. "I'm Not Talking" by A.C. Newman.  To be honest, I'm not absolutely certain what this song is saying, but I think it is expressing contented doubt:  "I like life as it is, and I'm not sure about the Big Questions, so until I am I won't commit myself and maybe jinx things."  Thought-provoking and really fun to listen to.

  1. "I Will Wait" (live) by Mumford and Sons.  You'd have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by  this unabashedly joyful performance.  And I love the lyrics with their prodigal-son overtones:  "Well, I came home like a stone/and I fell heavy into your arms;/These days of dust, which we've known,/will blow away with this new sun..."  

  1. "Flood Waters" by Josh Garrels.  The bluegrass harmonies are beautiful, but even better than that is the song's assurance of an everlasting love that is "more fierce than graves."

  1. "Butterfly" by Rajaton.  This song by the Finnish a capella group may just be the most beautiful piece of music I've ever heard.  And going to Rajaton's concert at Sydenham Street United Church in June was definitely the musical highlight of my year.   
    So what have you enjoyed reading or listening to in 2012?  Feel free to share that in the Comments!  And happy reading in 2013!

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