Friday, December 27, 2013

what I read in 2013



Here is my annual list of books I've read in the past year, rated out of five stars.  I hope you enjoy reading these mini-reviews.

I read so many memoirs and biographies this year that I've given them their own section, separate from other nonfiction. 

Disclaimer:  the opinions expressed here are mine only, in case you wondered otherwise.  Results may vary:  one person's five stars might be another's one star.  The writer of this blog takes no responsibility for anyone else not liking a book she liked.



FICTION: 

After (Phyllis Reynolds Naylor) - After the death of his wife, Harry struggles to navigate his new life with his three adult children, friends, and co-workers.  If you like Anne Tyler, you'll like this book; it's got the same kind of quirky, interesting characters but is way better than Tyler's last novel The Beginner's Goodbye, which is also about a recently-widowed man.  
* * * * 

Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy) - This was my first (and, I admit, probably only) time reading this massive classic.  I found quite a contrast between the romantic but ultimately pathetic plotline involving beautiful, doomed Anna Karenina, and the at-times boring but satisfying plotline involving unromantic cranky-pants Constantin Levin.  How Levin learns to love the people in his life and eventually come to faith in God seemed so believable to me, maybe because it was drawn directly from Tolstoy's own experiences.  * * * *

Evangeline (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) - This summer we went to see the new Canadian musical "Evangeline" at the Charlottetown Summer Festival, and in preparation I read Longfellow's beautiful long poem (the fictional story of a young couple separated during the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia in the 1750's) for the first time.  * * * *

Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) - This novel follows three people through Biafra's fight for independence from Nigeria in the 1960's:  Ugwu, a servant boy; Olanna, the lover of Ugwu's master;  and Richard, an Englishman in love with Olanna's twin sister Kainene.  This is a really good book, but it is more sweeping than Adichie's Purple Hibiscus (see below), with many minor characters and political events to keep straight.  I would have preferred a narrower focus on the twin sisters, whose relationship I found the most interesting.  * * * * 

Heading Out to Wonderful (Robert Goolrick) - Loner Charlie Beale arrives in a small town in Virginia and settles down, befriending the local butcher and his young son Sam.  Then Charlie falls in love with the wife of a rich man, leading to shocking repercussions for the two of them, Sam, and the whole town.  This novel's many Biblical echoes are interesting and would make for good discussion; it wasn't a great book, but it was worth reading.  * * * 

Little Bee (Chris Cleave) - Last year I read Cleave's Gold and gave it five stars -- and Little Bee is even better.  Sarah, a London editor, and Little Bee, a Nigerian teenager, encounter each other on a beach in Nigeria under horrifying circumstances.  Two years later Little Bee shows up at Sarah's home, forcing Sarah to face up to what happened between, and to, them both.  Little Bee is an unforgettable character, and I loved hearing her speak in her unique voice about what she has endured in her homeland and what she observes in England.  The book didn't totally satisfy me in terms of how the plot wrapped up (and it has some very disturbing scenes), but it's excellent just the same; Cleave's a great writer.   * * * * * 

Painter of Silence (Georgina Harding) - A deaf-mute man named Augustin collapses in front of a hospital in Romania; a young nurse, Safta, recognizes him as the son of a servant from her family's former estate.  The novel explores their childhood relationship, their separation during WWII, and their journey to new lives after they meet again.  The descriptions of how Augustin communicates through art are beautiful.  * * *

Purple Hibiscus (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) - This was the best novel I read in 2013.  Like Half of a Yellow Sun (above), it is set in Adichie's native Nigeria.  Fifteen-year-old Kambili, her brother Jaja, and their mother live a rigidly controlled life with her strict, religious Catholic father.  When Kambili and Jaja go to visit their Aunty Ifeoma, they taste freedom for the first time.  A wonderful book -- riveting from the very first sentence.  * * * * * 

The Burgess Boys (Elizabeth Strout) - Brothers Jim and Bob Burgess, both New York lawyers, travel back to their hometown in Maine when their sister's teenage son gets in trouble.  This event forces the siblings to deal not only with their own troubled relationships but also with the fallout from their father's death in a car accident when they were children.  I liked this book a lot, especially "lovable loser" Bob Burgess.  * * * * 

The Unfinished Child (Theresa Shea) - A novel about two friends (Marie, who is worried about an unexpected problem pregnancy, and Elizabeth, who is unable to have children) -- intertwined with the story of Margaret, who bore a daughter with Down Syndrome in 1947.  A pretty good story, though the Down Syndrome part seemed more like a plot device than a portrayal of real people.  * * * 

Three Day Road (Joseph Boyden) - Best friends Xavier and Elijah, young Cree men, go off to Europe to fight in WWI and become expert snipers.  Only one of them returns alive after the war, to be met by Xavier's aunt.  She takes him home by canoe, telling him her stories to keep him alive and listening to him tell how the horrors of war changed him and his relationship with his friend.  This is an excellent novel, though quite tough to read because of the relentless description of the violence of war. * * * * * 

Where'd You Go, Bernadette (Maria Semple) - A very quirky novel about Bernadette, an eccentric agoraphobic; her longsuffering husband Elgin, a Microsoft genius; and their brilliant daughter Bee.  The novel mixes straightforward narrative parts with email exchanges, letters, etc.  Laugh-out-loud funny in some places, numbingly tedious in others, kind of sweet and touching in others.  If you like something really different, try this; it didn't do a lot for me, but I know people in other book clubs who loved it. **

NONFICTION:

Believing God (Beth Moore) - If our faith isn't working for us, it might be because we believe in God, yet don't always believe Him:  who He says He is, who He says we are, etc.  I read this book with a group and it led to good discussion, but when you read Moore's books on their own you miss out on her dynamic personality.  Doing it in conjunction with the accompanying videos would probably have been better.  * * 

Far From the Tree:  Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (Andrew Solomon) - The best nonfiction book I read this year, no question.  This huge (900+ page) book explores how parents raise and relate to children who are very different from them.  Covers ten categories in great detail, with numerous case studies:  Deaf, Dwarf, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime, and Transgender.  This book will stay with you long after you've finished reading it.   I did a longer and more personal review of the book a few months ago on this blog; you can read that HERE .* * * * *

Happier at Home (Gretchen Rubin) - I haven't read Rubin's previous bestseller The Happiness Project, but I've read many of her magazine articles -- and as a confirmed homebody, I found her title appealing.  Here she discusses ways to make one's home happier by making it both more restful and more energizing -- emphasizing of course that what works for her won't necessarily work for others.  She divides the book into nine categories (one for each month from September to May):  Possessions, Marriage, Parenthood, Interior Design (i.e. "self-renovation"), Time, Body, Family, Neighbourhood, and Now.  * * * * 

Love Wins (Rob Bell) - Ever wondered if Hell is a real place with horned devils carrying tridents?  Rob Bell has.  Seriously, this small book poses some big challenges to many traditional Christian beliefs around heaven, hell, and salvation.  A controversial book that raises many questions.   * * * 

Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (Susan Cain) - The title says it all:  this big, fascinating book explores how introverts' often-untapped strengths and contributions are essential to society, in spite of the fact that our culture prizes extroversion.  One interesting part of the book is Cain's discussion of how western culture has shifted in the last century from a "culture of character" to a "culture of personality" -- and not for the better.  * * * * * 

BIOGRAPHIES AND MEMOIRS:

A Good and Perfect Gift (Amy Julia Becker) - Becker writes about finding out, two days after her first child's birth, that Penny had Down Syndrome -- and about her own journey of coming to terms with the diagnosis while falling in love with her baby.  Very honest and moving. * * * * 

Booked:  Literature in the Soul of Me (Karen Swallow Prior) - This excellent memoir deals with the role of books in the shaping of the author's life and faith, dealing with specific books at various stages:  from Charlotte's Web to Jane Eyre to Great Expectations and more.  (But that sentence doesn't quite do the book justice.)  I really enjoyed it. * * * * 

C.S. Lewis -- A Life:  Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Alister McGrath) - Very interesting new biography of C.S. Lewis, with in-depth discussions of his major writings.  Loved this passage about Narnia:  "The stories of Narnia seem childish nonsense to some.  But to others, they are utterly transformative.  For the latter group, these evocative stories affirm that it is possible for the weak and foolish to have a noble calling in a dark world; that our deepest intuitions point us to the true meaning of things; that there is indeed something beautiful and wonderful at the heart of the universe, and that this may be found, embraced, and adored."  * * * * * 

Half-Broke Horses (Jeannette Walls) - This book by the author of The Glass Castle is the story of Walls' maternal grandmother Lily Casey Smith.  (Walls calls it a "real-life novel," but for the purposes of this post it fits better in the biography category.)  Smith was a real character:  she became a horse-breaker at age 5 and a travelling schoolteacher at age 15, then later a rancher and pilot.  This book is very interesting as background to The Glass Castle and has a similar matter-of-fact style.  
* * * * 

No Easy Choice (Ellen Painter Dollar) - Dollar has Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a congenital brittle-bone disorder, as does her oldest child.  The book covers not only the explorations Dollar and her husband made in the area of Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, but also more broadly her thoughts about disability in relation to Christian faith.  * * * * 

L.M. Montgomery:  Complete Journals, Vol. 1 - I've read (and own) all five volumes of Montgomery's selected journals; now they're being published without omissions.  Although there wasn't a lot here I hadn't read before, it's an amazing life record of a complex woman. 
* * * * 

Nocturne (Helen Humphreys) - A tribute to the author's brother Martin, who died of cancer three years ago at age 45.  This book is written directly to her brother, so it is very moving and poignant.  * * * * 

Orthodoxy (G.K. Chesterton) - In this small but meaty book, Chesterton explores his journey to Christian faith:  how he speculated about many things such as optimism and pessimism, free will, progress, even fairy tales -- and came to realize that Christianity answered his questions and solved the riddles he'd been pondering.   * * * * 

Sober Mercies (Heather Kopp) - This book is about the author's journey from "Christian drunk" (her words) to sober, loved follower of Jesus.  I discovered Kopp's blog "Sober Boots" some time ago and kept reading it because of her warmth and honesty; then I won her book in a draw on someone else's blog.  I especially enjoyed Kopp's discussion of how she needed to reshape her Christian faith when the answers she'd always relied on didn't help her with her addiction problem.  * * * * * 

The Brontes (Juliet Barker) - Huge, detailed biography of the Bronte family.  I learned a great deal about the reality beyond the Bronte myths and also came away with an appreciation for a real unsung hero:  Charlotte Bronte's husband Arthur Bell Nicholls.  Nicholls fell in love with Charlotte, won her respect and love, married her, cared for her until she died nine months later at age 38 of severe morning sickness, supported her father until he died several years later, and showed humility and grace in the face of Charlotte's intrusive friends and biographers. * * * * 

Wave (Sonali Deraniyagala) - The author and her family were vacationing in southern Sri Lanka when the 2004 tsunami hit.  In an instant she lost her husband, her two young sons, her parents, and her friend.  A harrowing look at how one woman responded when the unthinkable happened to her.  * * * * 

Wild (Cheryl Strayed) - At age 22, Strayed lost her beloved mother to cancer; four years later she was divorced, estranged from her stepfather and siblings, and experimenting with heroin.  She decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from southern California to Oregon in an attempt to deal with her demons, but got much more than she bargained for.  Great book.  * * * * *


I hope this list has given you some ideas for things you'd like to read or re-read.  Now, what have you read this year that you've really enjoyed?  Please share in the comments!


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YOUR Favorite Books of 2013 | Modern Mrs Darcy



Note:  Modern Mrs. Darcy is doing a "best books of 2013" linkup on Jan. 3/14, so I've decided to link this post up with that one.

28 comments:

  1. What a great list! (From a friend of Lorraine H.). I have read a lot of these books. A lot of your favourites were my favourites. I just finished The Goldfinch by Donna Tratt! It was my best boom this year.

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    1. Hi there! Are you Alice Ann? Lori gave me some ideas of books from her book club -- are you in that same group? -- including Where'd You Go Bernadette (meh) and Wild (which I loved!). I've never heard of The Goldfinch but I'll check it out. Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. I'm reading A Good and Perfect Gift right now. I'm only at the start but Ellen's story is captivating and challenging.

    I've also read Booked and Quiet and Orthodoxy, all of which are wonderful. Chesterton really stands alone, doesn't he? Yet Booked opened my eyes to literature in ways I'd never thought possible. The chapter on Milton's Aeropagitica is alone worth the price of the book. Karen is masterful in her writing and story-telling.

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    1. The neat thing is, Tim, how many of these books I heard about by reading your blog and MMD and others!

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  3. I haven't read many memoirs lately but typically I love them. Your list will be my starting point. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks, MJ -- I am just realizing how much I enjoy reading books about other people's lives. There's so much out interesting real-life writing out there.

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  4. Awesome list! I would love to read LM Montgomery's journals. I have been meaning to read Anna Karenina, but I've always wondered if it would be somewhat lackluster already knowing how it ends. Wild looks great--glad to hear you liked! Wonderful reviews!

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    1. Thanks, Alison. I had already written my end-of-year book post when I saw MMD's linkup idea, so my list is not exactly best books (it does have a dud or two), but if people are willing to read all the way through hopefully they'll get some good ideas. Thanks for stopping by!

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  5. I LOVE Anna Karenina. I love how it deals with Anna and Levin's fear of death and how they both approach it. Anna to devastation, Levin to life, even though he considers taking his own life too. I also enjoyed Quiet.

    Booked is on my list for this year!

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    1. I think Anna Karenina is way more complex than I'll ever understand. I said above I'll probably never read it again, but ... never say never ....

      Thanks for coming by!

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  6. I re-read the selected journals this year as well as the newish LMM bio by journal co-editor Mary Rubio (The Gift of Wings). Wonderful.

    My grandmother's copy of Evangeline is something I've meant to read since living in Cajun country a few years back. Maybe this year?

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    1. Hi Caroline - I've met very few people who have read the LMM journals. They are so interesting. And I've read The Gift of Wings, too.

      Evangeline is not a long read but it takes a little time to get into the rhythm of the poetry. I loved it, though.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  7. What a wonderful list - I've definitely added a few here to my reading list. I'm linking up today with my own 2013 booklist linkup - Happy new Year!

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    1. Thanks, Sarah - these linkups are so much fun aren't they?

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  8. The ones really catching my eye here are the ones I've thought about reading, but have been hesitant to actually begin, especially Little Bee and Purple Hibiscus. And I've been wanting to get around to Sober Mercies and Booked since I first heard about them.

    Love the way you describe some of my own familiar favorites, like Quiet and Happier at Home. And I love your description of Anna Karenina, even though I wouldn't call that a "favorite." :)

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    1. Ha, I feel vaguely guilty when I even gently "diss" the classics. But AK is very worth reading even if I won't necessarily go back to it...

      I love this linkup; thanks for setting it up, Anne, and Happy New Year!

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  9. I've had a copy of The Burgess Boys downloaded on my nook for a long time. I guess it's time to bump it up the list. Thanks for the recommendations!

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    1. I've read all of Elizabeth Strout's books and while I'm not sure this is her best, I think all of hers are good!

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  10. Oh Evangeline was my Grandmother's favorite poem. I have fond memories of her saying different quotes. This is a great list of books. I already picked a few to read soon.

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    1. Thanks -- I love these linkups, so many good ideas! Thanks for stopping by & happy new year.

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  11. Love your disclaimer at the beginning. I have Quiet on my kindle ready to read soon. I add a few of your reads to my to read list. I like how you read a lot of biographies. I am trying to do that more.

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    1. Hi TJ,thanks for your comment. I clicked on your list too and I saw Changes That Heal -- one of my all-time favourites! I can't remember if it's this book or one of Cloud's other books where I read what has become one of my life quotes: "The truth is always your friend."

      Yeah, that disclaimer: I hate feeling responsible for other people liking what I like! :-)

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  12. I've got library reservations on the Happiness Project and the C.S. Lewis biography. Good to hear that you enjoyed the biography. I'm looking forward to it.
    I'll add at least Quiet and Wild to my "To Be Read Some Day" list, too. (Funny combination when written like that... :-) )

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    1. Quiet or Wild: there's No Easy Choice! :-)

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  13. This is such a great list! I loved Quiet and The Burgess Boys.

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    1. Thanks, Jillian - glad you stopped by!

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  14. What a great list! Some that I have enjoyed this year - Wild, Quiet, and Happier at Home...and many on my to-read list - Little Bee, Half-Broke Horses, Purple Hibiscus. I'll be adding more to my GoodReads list! Thank you so much for sharing! My favorites were Me Before You, Half the Sky, and Bread & Wine. :)

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    1. Those are 3 books I've seen on so many of the lists; I'm looking forward to reading them. Thanks for stopping by!

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