Tuesday, December 15, 2015

My 2015 book list



As 2015 comes to a close, it's time to post my annual list of books I've read in the past year.  I've divided them into fiction and nonfiction categories and rated each book out of five stars.

Once again the number of nonfiction books I read is double the number of fiction books. I used to be surprised by that when I was making up my list, but not anymore; I just really enjoy reading nonfiction, I guess.  But while my fiction list may be comparatively short, it's high in quality. The one novel I started and couldn't finish (what am I talking about? I could barely get through two chapters!) was the much-touted Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill.  (If you want to see the lambasting gentle criticism I gave it in an earlier blog post, click here.)

I hope this post gives you some ideas of books to add to your own to-read list.  And please let me know in the comments if you've read some of these yourself:  I'd love to know what you thought of them.
 
FICTION

A Student of Weather (Elizabeth Hay) - Nine-year-old misfit Norma Joyce, her perfect older sister Lucinda, and their widowed father all have their lives overturned by a handsome young researcher, Maurice, who appears on their doorstep. Norma Joyce's tumultuous long-term relationship with Maurice is the focus of the novel.  Hay's writing is beautiful (if a little pretentious at times), and the book just gets better as it goes along. 
* * *  

All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr) - This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is about two young people: Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl who must flee with her father to St. Malo, France, to avoid Nazi occupation; and Werner, an orphaned German boy whose mechanical skills earn him a spot in a brutal training school for Hitler youth.  Their parallel stories are told in short, alternating chapters that slowly come closer together and converge in 1944 when they meet in a moment of crisis and courage.  This book is absolutely awesome: it has amazing detail, beautiful writing, memorable characters, and an overall sense of magic that persists even through the tough scenes. 
* * * * * +

At the Water's Edge (Sara Gruen) - American society girl Madeline, her husband Ellis, and his friend Hank travel to a small Scottish village in hopes of sighting the Loch Ness Monster and getting Ellis back in his parents' good graces. As Madeline befriends the locals -- ordinary people whom her husband looks down on -- she comes to realize the truth about her husband, her marriage, and herself.  This is fairly light fiction but a much better book than the odd premise might suggest.  I enjoyed it.  
* * *  

Longbourn (Jo Baker) - This novel is told from the point-of-view of the servants in Pride and Prejudice, primarily the housemaid Sarah.  Not a sequel and not written in Austen style -- just a really good stand-alone novel that imagines what might be happening behind the scenes in the lives of 19th-century domestic servants. 
* * *

Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro) - This novel consists of narrator Kathy's recollections of her time in an ominous English boarding school called Hailsham, and particularly of her relationships with two friends, Ruth and Tommy.  Like the narrator in Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (which is one of my favourite novels), Kathy works back and forth through old memories, trying to explain and understand them.  But the technique that worked so well in Remains doesn't translate here: Kathy is too bland and faceless, and it takes too long to figure out the truth -- which lacks emotional impact when we do finally discover it. I didn't care for this book at all. 
*

The Book of Negroes (Lawrence Hill) - This novel focuses on Aminata, a West African girl in the 1700's who is taken from her family and put on a slave ship to America. Her intelligence and usefulness to her captors (she can read and write as her father taught her and can "catch babies" as her midwife mother did) help her survive the brutality of slavery and racism; but she suffers separation from her children and from her husband Chekura, who was one of her original captors.  After years in South Carolina, Manhattan, and Nova Scotia, she eventually revisits her African homeland and even travels to London to assist the abolitionist movement. Triumphant novel with an inspiring main character. 
* * * *

The Light Between Oceans (M.L. Stedman) - This is one of those novels I'd heard about for a few years but hadn't got around to; after finishing it, I was kicking myself for not reading it sooner. It tells the story of a young couple in post-WWI England who live an idyllic life as lighthouse keepers on a remote island.  When a boat containing a dead man and a living baby washes up on shore, the couple's decisions about how to respond cause lifelong repercussions for an entire community.  This excellent page-turner of a novel explores themes of guilt and forgiveness in a thoughtful, satisfying way. 
* * * * *

The Secret Keeper (Kate Morton) - Sixteen-year-old Laurel witnesses a crime involving her mother Dorothy and a stranger, but it is hushed up and she doesn't begin to untangle the mystery until 50 years later when her mother is dying. Laurel comes to learn the truth about her mother, who lived in London during WWII; Dorothy's photographer boyfriend Jimmy; and Vivien, the mysterious and beautiful woman who gets caught up in their lives.  This book has unique characters, great description and atmosphere, and an intricate plot with a truly stunning twist at the end.  
* * * * * 

The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes) - Middle-aged narrator Tony looks back on his youthful friendship with schoolmate Adrian and on his romance with the enigmatic Veronica. Years later, when Adrian is dead and Veronica is out of his life, Tony receives a surprising inheritance that forces him to confront the past and realize that his version of events may be all wrong.  Fascinating short novel that raises many questions about time, guilt, remorse, and memory. 
* * * 


NONFICTION 

10% Happier (Dan Harris) - The subtitle,
How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works, pretty much tells you the whole book. Harris is a news anchor and reporter who was relying on drugs and denial to cope with stress, until an on-air panic attack showed him he needed to make some significant changes.  He was initially skeptical about meditation but is now a staunch advocate of its physical and emotional benefits.  Interesting and fairly entertaining book chronicling Harris's personal journey. 
* *

A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey (Jessica Fellowes) - This just-for-pleasure book is one of several companion books about the popular TV show. Each chapter focuses on one month of the year and has a different theme, such as The London Season, Farming, The House Party, The Sporting Season, etc.  The book combines photos and behind-the-scenes descriptions of the show with information about the time period, including recipes. 
* * * *

Accidental Saints:  Discovering God in All the Wrong People (Nadia Bolz-Weber) - Bolz-Weber (whose book Pastrix I read and reviewed last year) is a tattooed, foul-mouthed former alchoholic who is now the pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado.  (It is so hard to describe people in one sentence without caricaturing them.) She writes with honesty, humour, and vulnerability about her encounters with people inside and outside her church, and how she is changed by the grace she receives from the unlikeliest people and from the God who continues to use her even when she feels most inadequate. 
* * * *

Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (Eric Metaxas) - Accessible, inspiring biography of the British MP and activist William Wilberforce, whose fight against slavery and the slave trade changed the world.
* * * *


An Altar in the World (Barbara Brown Taylor) - A book of lovely essays reflecting on how the sacred is found not just in church but in the mundane things of life. 
* * *

A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson) is about Bryson's adventures walking the Appalachian Trail with his eccentric friend Katz.  Full of interesting historical and natural detail and social commentary -- and so funny
* * * * 

Being Mortal (Atul Gawande) -  Excellent book exploring the the aging process and the tension between what medicine can do and what it should do -- using case studies including Gawande's own father. Argues that when dying people are told the truth and invited to share their fears, goals, and hopes, it is much easier for them to make wise and brave decisions about end-of-life care and treatment.  
* * * * *

Born on a Blue Day (Daniel Tammet) - Tammet is an English man who has Asperger Syndrome and is a savant with amazing math and memory skills.  Very interesting autobiography told in a clear, engaging style. 
* * *

Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More - Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Karen Swallow Prior) -  In the 18th and 19th centuries More was an influential writer, teacher, and social reformer who moved in elite political and social circles, counting Samuel Johnson, John Newton, and William Wilberforce among her friends.  It's impressive to read how More and her friends mentored and exhorted each other in their tireless efforts to teach the poor, write literature encouraging good living, advocate for animal rights, protest the slave trade, and engage in other activist pursuits.  Prior strikes the perfect balance of scholarship and storytelling, bringing to life a woman whose life and influence may not be familiar to many readers.
* * * *

Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers
(Leslie Leyland Fields) - Drawing on her own experience with an emotionally (and often physically) absent father, Fields explores the process of forgiving parents and moving into healing and freedom.  Fields acknowledges that the resolution of relationships is not always tidy like the movies; yet the book is very empowering because it shows us that even if "they didn't" or "he can't" or "she won't" -- maybe we can
* * * * 

Friends for the Journey (Madeleine L'Engle and Luci Shaw) - A collection of reflections, interviews, and poems on the theme of friendship by writers and longtime friends Shaw and (the late) L'Engle.  This book felt a little dated and over-polished, but I enjoyed the poetry, especially Shaw's. 
* *

Jesus Feminist (Sarah Bessey) - This book is neither a militant diatribe about the evils of patriarchy, nor a dry treatise on how to correctly translate every Bible verse that mentions women. Rather, it's a call to women to bravely follow the Jesus who knows and loves them, and a call to Christians to participate in God's "redemptive movement" by which He is moving His people forward toward justice and freedom. In her warm, intimate style, Bessey tells her own faith story and those of other women she's encountered in North America and elsewhere. And with the intensity of a prophet, she urges the church to drop the pointless debates about gender roles and instead focus on the work of God's Kingdom, a work which includes men and women as equal partners. 
* * * *

Rising Strong (Brene Brown) - Brown's newest book continues to explore the themes of shame, vulnerability, and courage which her previous ones  -- I Thought It Was Just Me, The Gifts of Imperfection, and Daring Greatly -- addressed.  This book is specifically about how people pick themselves up and move on after failure. Brown encourages us to walk into our story, own it, and use it to practice a new truthful, wholehearted way of living.  One of the concepts I found especially helpful was her discussion of what she calls BIG -- Boundaries, Integrity, and Generosity -- and how balancing those three in a healthy way can help us in many situations where we struggle to know what to do.  I loved this book and, upon finishing it, would have immediately re-read it if I hadn't had to return it to the library (oh, the trials and tribulations of the avid reader).  
* * * * *

Rumours of Glory (Bruce Cockburn) - Huge, detailed memoir of Cockburn's life as a musician, social activist, and spiritual explorer.  I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of his trips to many different parts of the world, where he observed various conflicts and atrocities and composed songs to bear witness to what he'd seen. The book focuses quite a bit on Cockburn's spiritual journey. The fact that he no longer embraces orthodox Christianity (but instead sees Jesus as "compassionate activist" and "portal to the cosmos" and such) might be unsettling to some people -- but I was actually more bothered by the depiction of his relationships with women, who often appear more as a means to his spiritual development than as equals.  Yet overall this book gave me a fresh admiration for Cockburn's skill as a poet and visionary. It's a must-read for any Bruce Cockburn fan. 
* * * *

The Center Cannot Hold (Elyn Saks) - Saks, a successful law and psychiatry professor, has lived with schizophrenia since she was 8 years old. This fascinating memoir deals with her determination to achieve professional success, her love-hate relationship with medication and "talk therapy," and her social and personal struggles. A tough book, but triumphant. 
* * * *

This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (eds. Jay Allison and Dan Gediman) - This book, originally based on a 1950's radio program, presents several dozen short essays on the theme "This I Believe." It includes many well-known figures such as Helen Keller and Bill Gates, and many people who are not at all famous. It has an "America is great" undertone that I found off-putting at times, but it's thought-provoking.  
* * *
 
What Remains (Carole Radziwill) - The author, a journalist, was married to Prince Anthony Radziwill, who was a nephew of Jacqueline Kennedy; Anthony developed terminal cancer just before he and Carole married, and he lived only five more years.  This fascinating but sad book chronicles the couple's relationship and battle with the cancer, as well as the tragedy of the plane crash that killed John Kennedy Jr. (Anthony's cousin and best friend), his wife, and her sister.  
* * * 

When We Were On Fire (Addie Zierman) - Zierman grew up immersed in 90's Christian culture: chastity vows, mission trips, and desperate attempts to live the way she thought God (and her boyfriend) wanted her to. After marrying and searching in vain for a true church home, she battled depression, alcoholism, and disillusionment with the version of Christianity she'd been raised in.  An honest, grace-filled memoir. 
* * * *

Writers on the Spectrum: How Autism and Asperger Syndrome Have Influenced Literary Writing (Julie Brown) - Brown, a professor of literature, discusses several famous authors -- including Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, and Lewis Carroll -- giving convincing evidence for the possibility that the writer was on the autism spectrum. She then explores how that fact affected the writer's genre choices, subject matter, themes, and style. In a final chapter she discusses several autobiographies by well-known or lesser-known people with autism or Asperger's (including Daniel Tammet's Born on a Blue Day, which appears earlier in my list).
* * *

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Note: I'm linking this books-of-the-year post (which I'm posting a little earlier than usual) with Modern Mrs. Darcy's December "Quick Lit" linkup.  Every month on the 15th MMD posts short reviews of books she's read and invites others to link up their own blog posts on the same subject.  This is partly where I get so many great ideas of books to read.

********* 
Dec. 30/15: I'm also linking this post up with Kate Motaung's end-of-year blog post.


20 comments:

  1. Wow, Jeannie! Your list is really impressive. You're reminding me again that I want to read All the Light We Cannot See. going to share your description of it with my mom, who would love it.

    Just last night I settled in with a fun, relaxing read: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. I read many of her books as a teen and love to go back to them once in a while. My teen son loves them too.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Betsy. I confess I have never read any Agatha Christie. I guess I just think "Oh, I'm not a mystery reader" -- but I would probably love them. I hope you do get to read "All the Light" this year. It's a beautiful book.

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  2. I've read Jesus Feminist and Fierce Convictions. Of the others on your list, The Book of Negroes looks fascinating. You know a bit of my taste, Jeannie. Do you think I'd like the author's writing?

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    1. Most definitely, Tim. One thing I appreciated about this book is that despite its telling of very difficult, often violent events, it is not overly graphic. I just can't read books that go into great detail about violence etc. Hill manages to avoid that yet still write with a lot of power.

      BTW this book was called "Somebody Knows My Name" in the US, probably b/c the word "Negroes" has more problematic associations there than in Canada where it was written. In fact the title refers to an actual register of freed slaves; in the novel, the main character is in charge of writing the entries because she is literate.

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  3. Kudos on reading books you mostly found satisfying! I fear I will not be able to say the same for my year end roundup. Was that a plus after the five stars for All the Light We Cannot See? Like 10.5 out of 10? :) I started that book but had to give it back to the library.

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    1. Hi Anne - yep, 5+ out of 5! It's THAT GOOD. I hope you get back to it! Thanks for coming by.

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  4. Jeannie, I love book lists, and yours is especially helpful. I made a note of several of them - maybe they'll be on my book list next year:) I have read All the Light We Cannot See and The Light Between Oceans, and thought they were both excellent. I think I liked The Light Between Oceans a little better, and I'm not exactly sure why. The moral issues that the couple dealt with were fascinating to me. And I bought Being Mortal for my son the medical student. Maybe I'll borrow it from him when he's done. The book I'm particularly interested in is An Altar in the World. My husband and I have done a lot of reading on work, especially how Christians approach their work. Thanks for the recommendations, Jeannie. Have a very Merry Christmas! Judy

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    1. Thanks Judy, and the same to you! I appreciate your comment. I thought the moral issues aspect of The Light Between Oceans was really interesting, too -- it would make for a great book-club discussion, I think.

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  5. I love reading your suggestions because I usually like what you like. I read "All the Light we Cannot See" and loved it. So I just bought "The Light Between Oceans" for my Christmas stocking :-) Did you see the movie "Walk in the Woods"? Bruce and I both thought it was VERY funny. He had read the book first, but I hadn't. We're doing "The Illegal" by Lawrence Hill next month for our book club book. We did Book of Negroes last year.

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    1. I haven't seen the movie version of "A Walk in the Woods" -- it does seem odd to me that it has 70+-year-old actors when in fact the guys in the book were in their 40s when they did the walk. If the movie is half as funny as the book it would be good.

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    2. Putting All the light We Cannot See on my reading list for 2016. So many people have been recommending it.

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    3. It's a wonderful book. Thanks so much for stopping in here, Rachel.

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  6. Looks like a great list! I need to read more fiction!

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    1. That's never a bad decision! Thanks for stopping by, Natasha.

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  7. Wow! You read a LOT of books! I've heard of several, read some, and haven't even heard of others. So glad you linked up at my site! Thanks for sharing this list! Hope 2016 is another year of great reading for you!

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    1. Thanks Kate - I saw your tweet about this linkup so I thought I'd join in.

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  8. 10% Happier, Rising Strong, and A Walk In The Woods were on my list as well. Thanks for some great recommendations.

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    1. You're welcome -- I appreciate your coming by!

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  9. Nice list! The Center Cannot Hold sounds like a fascinating book (I recently read The Unquiet Mind--a memoir of a psychiatrist with bipolar disorder). The Secret Keeper sounds like a great boo, too :). Thank you for sharing your list!

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    1. And thanks for coming by and commenting! The Unquiet Mind sounds like something I would be interested in reading; I enjoy memoirs.

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