Tuesday, December 18, 2018

My year in books: 2018

It's time for my end-of-year book post listing all the books I read this year. In previous years I've sometimes left this post until the very end of December or New Year's Day, but maybe you're still doing some Christmas shopping and would like some last-minute ideas -- in which case my post may be helpful.

My nonfiction list is always much longer than my fiction list, so I've divided Nonfiction up into smaller categories: Memoir/Autobiography, History/Biography, and Other Nonfiction. In one or two cases it was a bit difficult to figure out where a book fit, but in general I find these useful distinctions. Within each category I ranked my books this way:

5/5 (Exceptional)
4/5 (Excellent)
3/5 (Good)
2/5 (Okay)
1/5 (Poor)


Virgil Wander (Leif Enger). When middle-aged bachelor Virgil, who runs a local movie theater, has a car accident that leaves him with concussion symptoms, he must slowly reorient himself to life in his little down-on-its-luck Minnesota town. I grew to love Virgil and his endearing, quirky neighbours. The characters are wonderful, and Enger is such a magnificent writer. I hated to see this book end. (5/5) 

An American Marriage (Tayari Jones). The lives of a young couple, Roy and Celestial, are thrown into turmoil when Roy is unjustly convicted of a crime and sent to jail for ten years. Jones' technique of using alternating first-person narrators as well as letters allows us to understand all the characters' perspectives. The resolution doesn't come easily, but it's satisfying. Such a good novel. (5/5)

 Medicine Walk (Richard Wagamese). Franklin Starlight, a native boy raised in seclusion by a kind non-native man, is called to the bedside of his estranged alcoholic father, who wants Franklin to take him into the wilderness so he can die like a warrior. Beautifully written, haunting book about reconciliation, family, and story. (5/5) 

Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng). The Richardsons' respectable lives are turned upside down when single mother Mia and her daughter Pearl move into their rental house. As in her first novel, Everything I Never Told You, Ng shifts smoothly among the points-of-view of many characters, revealing their motives and secrets.I liked this one a lot. (4/5)

Commonwealth (Ann Patchett). The lives of two families intersect in the first scene, leading to a marriage breakup and two remarriages. The book then follows the six Cousins and Keating children, who've been reluctantly thrown together by their parents' actions. When one of them has an affair with a writer who uses their family story as inspiration for a novel, their complicated relationships are further threatened. Really enjoyed this. (4/5)

Fifteen Dogs (Andre Alexis). Greek gods Hermes and Apollo make a bet about whether dogs would be more or less happy if they could speak and think like humans. The gods decide to give human consciousness to fifteen dogs they spy in a veterinary clinic and then step back to see how the dogs respond, both individually and as a group. Some thought-provoking stuff here about the concept of time, the meaning of happiness, how we respond to change, etc. -- but overall it was choppy, at times confusing, and pretty bleak. We did this novel in our book study group; I found it quite interesting to discuss, but not especially enjoyable to read. (2/5)



All Things Consoled: A Daughter's Memoir (Elizabeth Hay). This was my favourite memoir this year. As Hay's strong, independent parents rapidly declined in old age and she and her siblings took on a greater role in their care and decision-making, Hay had to deal with challenging family dynamics, hurtful memories (particularly about her relationship with her angry father), and her own desire to be the good, responsible daughter. Beautifully written and so moving. (5/5)

Reading With Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship (Michelle Kuo). Kuo, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, went to teach at a school in Helena, Arkansas, where she worked with some of the country's poorest black students. When a young man named Patrick was charged with murder, Kuo begam to teach and mentor him one-on-one in prison -- where his self-confidence and literary skills came alive. Wonderful book about friendship, race, literature, and hope. (5/5) 

I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (Austin Channing Brown). As a girl, Brown discovered her parents had named her Austin so that when she was older and seeking work, prospective employers might assume she was a white man and give her a chance. Her desire to explore and celebrate her blackness thus bumped up against her realization that it was disadvantageous to be black and female in America. Brown shares her experiences navigating the unconscious biases and open hostilities of white friends, colleagues, and strangers. So good -- particularly the final chapter, where she rejects white people's insistence that she should be more hopeful, and declares that she "dwells in the shadow of hope." (5/5)

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood (Trevor Noah). This book by the comedian and TV host chronicles his experiences as a boy born to a black mother and white father (hence his very existence was "a crime") as South Africa was emerging from apartheid. Equal parts hilarious, shocking, and heartbreaking. (4/5)

Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home (Amy Dickinson). I enjoyed this memoir by the "Ask Amy" advice columnist; it chronicles her mid-life move back to her small hometown in New York State and her unexpected romance with a local building contractor. (4/5) 

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (Barbara Brown Taylor). When Taylor was an Episcopal priest in a small-town church in Georgia, the joys and demands of pastoral ministry changed her and exposed her own brokenness and need. Although she left her church and pastoral ministry to become a college professor, she gained new appreciation for the reasons people do or don't gather in Christian community and for God's presence in unexpected places. (4/5) 

Everything Happens For a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved (Kate Bowler). Bowler, a scholar who (ironically) studies the prosperity gospel, was forced to confront her own assumptions about success and entitlement when she got colon cancer at age 35. In this book she reflects with candour and humour on facing her diagnosis, the prospect of dying and leaving her husband and small son behind, the things people do and say that do/don't help, and the need to face suffering without resorting to platitudes. (4/5) 

Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America (Michael Wear). Wear was was part of President Obama's faith-based initiatives team during Obama's first term in office and worked on his 2012 reelection campaign. Very interesting behind-the-scenes look at Obama's relationship with Christian leaders, the faith-based office's efforts in disaster relief and anti-trafficking work, and controversies over abortion and gay marriage. Calls on Christians not to place their hope in politics, but to bring their faith to bear on all aspects of public life. (4/5) 

Aching Joy: Following God Through the Land of Unanswered Prayer (Jason Hague). I thoroughly enjoyed this very real, relatable book about how Hague is walking out the journey of being a father to his autistic son, Jack. (Go HERE to read my full review from earlier this year.) (4/5) 

Fire Shut Up in My Bones (Charles Blow). Journalist Blow tells of growing up in Louisiana with a hardworking mother and philandering father and of always feeling isolated and different. Sexual "betrayals" (his word) by older relatives marked him and spurred his lifelong exploration of his sexual identity and his identity as a black man. (4/5) 

A Place to Land: A Story of Longing and Belonging (Kate Motaung). Touching memoir of the author's life growing up in Michigan, her move to South Africa and marriage to a South African man, and her mother's devastating cancer diagnosis. I particularly related to Motaung's efforts to support and grieve for her mother from a distance. (3/5) 

Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I'm Learning to Say (Kelly Corrigan). Corrigan shares stories from her own life and relationships, focusing on hard-to-say phrases like "I don't know" and "Tell me more." Quick, enjoyable read with some profound messages. (3/5) 


Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Caroline Fraser). This Pulitzer-winning book looks in-depth at the true life story behind the Little House on the Prairie books -- a story that in many ways is quite different from the tale of pioneer triumph and self-sufficiency that Wilder told. We also get a firsthand look at Wilder's problematic relationship with her daughter Rose and the strange collaborative process by which they composed the Little House books. A thoroughly fascinating exploration of one of our most beloved writers and her books. (5/5) 

A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L'Engle (Sarah Arthur). This reflection on the life and work of the author of A Wrinkle in Time (and dozens of other books) is structured according to interesting paired concepts like Fact and Fiction, Sacred and Secular, etc. It reveals some of the contradictions of L'Engle's life yet reinforces her status as an influential writer of faith and imagination. (4/5) 

Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart (Claire Harman). This was fairly interesting -- but having already read Margot Peters' much more engrossing Bronte biography An Unquiet Soul (published in the 70's) a few years ago, I didn't feel I got anything really new from this 2015 book. Even the title sounds too much like Peters'. (2/5) 

Other Nonfiction: 

So You Want to Talk About Race (Ijeoma Oluo). A fantastic book for anyone who wants to engage in conversations about race but doesn't know how, is afraid to offend or be offended, or just isn't familiar with the issues. Oluo discusses white privilege, intersectionality, cultural appropriation, the school-to-prison pipeline, and many other topics. Informative, challenging, and a little uncomfortable. (5/5) 

Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work (Alison Green). I like reading Green's online "Ask a Manager" column, so when I saw this at the library I picked it up. I enjoyed the straightforward advice (useful in many areas of life, not just work) and the odd-but-true stories about people's workplace experiences. (4/5) 

The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth (Chris Heuertz). This book on the Enneagram system of personality focuses on the Enneagram's role in helping us engage in contemplative practices of solitude, silence, and stillness. Thoughtful, pastoral, and visually appealing.  (4/5) 

The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey to Healthy Relationships (Suzanne Stabile). This book by the co-writer (with Ian Cron) of The Road Back to You focuses on how the nine different Enneagram types behave in relationships and how to understand and relate to types that are different from our own. Really enjoyed this. (4/5) 

Self to Lose, Self to Find (Marilyn Vancil). This clear, accessible book on the Enneagram, written from a Christian perspective, explores the nine types, the three centers of intelligence, the authentic vs. adapted self, and Jesus' invitation to disown ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. (3/5) 

Only Dead on the Inside: A Parent's Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse (James Breakwell). I enjoy Breakwell's tweets (@XplodingUnicorn) about his life with his wife, four young daughters, and pet pig, so I thought it would be fun to read his book -- and it was. If you want to "raise happy, healthy children in a world overrun by the undead," this book is for you. (3/5) 

I'd Rather be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life (Anne Bogel). This small book by the "Modern Mrs. Darcy" blogger consists of short essays about various aspects of a reader's life: waiting for your library reservations, reading the right book at the right time, living next door to a library, etc. Bogel's previous book, Reading People (an informative primer on the most popular personality-typing systems) was excellent, so I expected more substance than this book provided. It's a pleasant light read for an afternoon, though. (2/5) 

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Jordan Peterson). I made my way through this at-times unreadable 400-page book so you don't have to. Peterson's twelve "rules" -- bits of folksy advice encapsulated in profound-sounding chapter titles like "Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today" -- are buried in overwritten, pompous, at times creepy prose. If the book's self-aggrandizing introduction (oops, "Overture") doesn't put you off, his first chapter, about standing up straight like a lobster (huh?) might. It's disturbing but really not surprising that Peterson has been so warmly embraced by the Incel crowd, considering that his book's central polarity is order (masculine) vs. chaos (feminine). He comes across as obnoxious and sexist. I would not recommend this book at all. (1/5)

WHEW. Where was I? Well, I guess I've come to the end of my list. Thanks for sticking with me right to the end! I hope you've found some interesting things to add to your gift list or your own to-read list. 

And if you've read any of the above books and want to share your own opinions -- whether in sync with mine or not -- please do so in the comments.

Hope you have a great reading year in 2019!

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Haikus for Advent: Week Two

As I explained in my last post, I am composing a haiku for each day of Advent this year and posting it on Twitter. 

These are the haikus I wrote for Week Two of Advent. 


peace candle wavers
but does not go out. pray for
migrants fleeing war


coloured lights glowing
in the window, softening
the edges of night


expectant, we wait,
hardly knowing what -- or Who --
lies at waiting's end


he scatters the proud
topples rulers' thrones, lifts up
the humble of heart


the hungry are fed
and the Lord does not forget
to be merciful


its head now engaged,
the baby will soon be born --
and this is our God!


He in whose image
we were made is himself made
into our likeness


Saturday, December 08, 2018

Haikus for Advent: Week One

At the beginning of Advent, I decided that I would compose a haiku each day for the duration of the Advent season and post it on Twitter. Here on the blog I will post the previous week's poems at the end of each week.

My approach to this little project is pretty simple: each day I just choose some image or word to focus on related to Advent, Christmas, winter, nature, etc. I'm not linking them thematically one after another in any way beyond that. And I am not really holding myself strictly to all the traditional rules of haiku: I'm just using the pattern of seventeen syllables (5 - 7 - 5) to structure the poem.

Here are the haikus from Week One:


Ordinary  Time
ends and Advent invites us
to be still, to wait


light the hope candle
its flame pierces the darkness
small but persistent


L'Engle calls Advent
"the irrational season":
faith, not certainty


child kicks in the womb
Mary moves slowly these days
highly favoured one


air swirling with snow
the sky is gray: nighttime
flees late, falls early


come, Immanuel
let your love and justice break
the curse's power


ground and trees are bare
creatures store up winter food
to feast on later


I hope you enjoy these tiny poems. You can check back here in a week to see the haikus from Week Two -- or you can follow me on Twitter, if you're not doing so already, to read them day by day.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Five Minute Friday: ONE

I'm linking up with Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes on a given prompt.

This week's word is ONE.

Earlier this week there was a piece published in the online magazine LitHub by author Jonathan Franzen: 

It wasn't a very helpful list, to be honest. 

Some of the "rules" sounded more like fortune-cookie proverbs: "You see more sitting still than chasing after."

Some were vague: "Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting." Uh ... ok ... would you like to proffer, bestow, or furnish some examples, Jonathan?

And some were just head-scratchers: "It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction." First of all, what if you have a job as an accountant and then come home and work on your novel: how does having WiFi at work make you a poor fiction writer? (Why not just say, "Stop surfing the net when you're supposed to be writing your novel," if that's what you mean?) Also -- "his workplace"? What is this, 1950? Or does this rule only apply to male writers?

I just have One Rule For Writing, and it's an adaptation of a quote attributed to Mother Teresa talking about prayer:


I don't mean "You're as good a writer as you're ever going to be, so just churn out whatever comes easiest and don't challenge yourself."

What I mean is, find the time, place, style, tone, voice, genre, or structure of writing that works for you. If you can't get up at 5 a.m. to write for two hours, don't. If it isn't possible for you to write every day, don't worry about it. If your style is earnest and thoughtful, don't try to write light, quirky material just to cater to popular audiences.

And the paradox is: as you focus on writing "as you can" -- finding your unique style and gift -- one day you'll look back and see that you are writing more and better than you ever thought you could.


Thursday, November 15, 2018

November 2018 Quick Lit: What I've been reading

Today I'm participating in Modern Mrs. Darcy's Quick Lit linkup, where we share short reviews of what we've been reading. 

This month I read one memoir and two novels, all of which were excellent.

Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles M. Blow. When Chapters had its moving sale a few months ago I picked up several $1 or $2 books, including this one. I wasn't familiar with Blow's work as a journalist or even with his name, to be honest; I chose the book simply because it looked interesting. I'm glad I did, because it is a beautifully-written, moving memoir of Blow's life beginning with his boyhood in Louisiana with a philandering father and hard-working mother. Blow always felt lonely and different in his family, which he says contributed to his being taken advantage of sexually by a cousin -- an event that separated his life into before-and-after and was the catalyst for his lifelong exploration of both his sexual identity and his identity as a black man. Well worth reading.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. The only other book of Patchett's that I've read is her most famous, Bel Canto. Commonwealth doesn't quite live up to that standard, but I still really enjoyed it. It begins with a long scene in which the Keating and Cousins families intersect, setting in motion two divorces and one marriage. The story focuses mainly on the six children (two Keatings, four Cousinses), who are thrown together in the wake of their parents' breakups. Their troubled relationships come to a head when they grow up and one of the daughters becomes involved with an older writer who uses her family's story as inspiration for what becomes a wildly successful novel. There are a couple of minor subplots that  didn't seem particularly significant, but overall I loved how the plotlines interwove together, filling in the details of past events from various characters' perspectives. Patchett is such an accomplished writer: she knows just how much detail to provide in any given moment so that we understand the situation without requiring a huge amount of backstory, and her characters are distinct and believable. This is an excellent novel about how families can come through very tough situations, reconfigure, and become even stronger.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger. I loved this novel. It starts slowly with narrator Virgil Wander, a middle-aged bachelor, recovering from concussion symptoms after a freakish car accident and reorienting himself to his quiet life in a down-on-its-luck Minnesota town. In the early chapters we meet a whole cast of quirky characters: a kite-flying stranger seeking information about his son, a beautiful woman whose husband went missing years ago, a local boy who made it big (maybe?) in Hollywood and is now back and attracting attention ... and more. At first it's hard to keep everyone straight, but Enger is such a warm, trustworthy storyteller -- and Virgil is such a likeable person -- that soon I was fully absorbed in the lives of all the characters. Then, about halfway through, the plot kicks into gear with a series of unsettling events that kept me turning pages and rooting for Virgil and his little community. So good.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Five Minute Friday: REPEAT

I'm linking up with Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is REPEAT.

A few years ago I wrote a children's story called "Peter Repeater."

It's about a little boy named Peter who repeats everything other people say. 

He repeats what his parents say.

He repeats what his older siblings and his baby brother say.

He repeats what his classmates say.

He repeats what his teacher and principal say.

He annoys EVERYBODY with his repetition, and he won't stop.

I said, he annoys EVERYBODY with his repetition, and he won't stop.

Then one day his teacher takes the day off (trust me, she needs it) and his class gets a substitute teacher.

Peter tries his repeating ways on this new teacher -- but he gets more than he bargained for. The teacher says so many long, complicated sentences, with such big, silly words in them, that Peter can't keep up. Finally he has to admit he's met his match. His new teacher just isn't repeat-able.

There are lots of people out there doing what everybody else is doing. But you can stop others in their tracks by being original.

Thinking outside the box.

Going where no one has gone before.

It's so freeing when you realize you can just BE. You don't have to be a repeater.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Classics Book Tag

My fellow blogger and book lover Elliott Blackwell recently wrote a post called "The Classics Book Tag" on his blog Begin In Wonder. In that post he answered ten questions about classic books and issued a challenge to others to do the same. Here are my ten questions and answers.

1. What is an overhyped classic that you didn't really like? 

That's easy: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. At 55 pages, it is the shortest book I ever hated too much to finish -- and I am sure I had it assigned at least twice in university courses. I think on both occasions I just read the first five pages and the last five pages. I just hated it! I think it is probably an important book to read in the context of discussions about race and colonialization, so someday I may give it another try........................................................ actually no, I probably won't.

2. What is your favourite time period to read about?

Many of my favourite books (not necessarily classics -- yet) are set in/around World War I or II: All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr), The Light Between Oceans (M.L. Stedman), Everyone Brave is Forgiven (Chris Cleave), The Secret Keeper (Kate Morton), just to name a few.

But I think actually my favourite setting (if not time period) for fiction is rural: whether it's the "good country people" of Flannery O'Connor's fiction, or the Avonlea-dwellers in L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series, or the poor migrants of John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. I just love reading about -- and writing about -- rural life and the things that go on behind the simple bucolic exterior.

3. What is your favourite fairy tale?

Hansel and Gretel. As a child hearing this story I admired the children's resourcefulness in leaving their breadcrumb trail, and I loved the idea of them nibbling parts of the gingerbread house. I thrilled at the idea of the witch being tricked when Hansel holds out a bone instead of his own finger -- and of course seeing the witch pushed into the oven was great! 

None of the disturbing parts of the story, such as why the children were alone in the forest in the first place, ever bothered me. 

By the way, Jonathan enjoys the PBS show Super Why in which the Super Readers fly into a fairy tale to solve a mystery using the power of words. In the Super Why version of Hansel and Gretel, the children must "ASK FIRST" before biting a piece off the witch's cookie house; once they do, she's perfectly fine with it and doesn't try to eat them at all. (It just  shows you what good manners can accomplish.)

4. What is the classic you are most embarrassed you haven't read yet?

Maybe not exactly embarrassed, but I confess that I have not read any of the great Russian classics except Anna Karenina. I have not read War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, or Crime and Punishment. Nor have I read Hugo's Les Miserables -- not Russian of course, but a large novel (in size and influence) that I've yet to read.

5. What are the top 5 classics you would like to read soon?

A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens. It is one of my brother Lincoln's favourites, and he gave me his copy when we were in PEI this summer.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. I love Wharton's writing, and this is one of hers I haven't read yet.

(Notice how none of these are the same novels as in #4?) 

6. What is your favourite modern book/series based on a classic?

I liked Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres and David Wrobleski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, both based on Shakespeare plays. 

I also enjoyed -- much more than I expected to, in fact -- Jo Baker's Longbourn, about a servant in the home of Pride and Prejudice's Bennet family. It's not a sequel to or a rewriting of the original, just a really good stand-alone novel that someone who'd never read P&P could enjoy.

7. What is your favourite movie/TV version of a classic?

I love the BBC version of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, with Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood.

8. What is the worst classic-to-movie/TV adaptation you've seen?

The worst for me would have to be The House of Mirth starring Gillian Anderson. Anderson does her best, but this movie has serious casting problems. And the writers made an abysmal, nonsensical decision to combine two characters (Gertie and Grace) into one, obliterating one of the most important subplots of the novel. I could go on and on and on, but this is just an awful treatment of one of my favourite novels.

Two other adaptations I strongly disliked were The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (I gave up after half an hour) and Earthsea, based on Ursula LeGuin's wonderful book A Wizard of Earthsea. That one is brutal.

9. Favourite editions you'd like to collect more classics from?

I don't have an answer here; I don't collect any particular versions.

10. What is one under-hyped classic you would recommend to someone?

Make that two -- and they're very different:

Silence by Shusaku Endo - about Portuguese missionaries to Japan in the 1600's.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith - about a teenage girl, Cassandra Mortmain, who lives in a tumbledown castle with her eccentric family in 1930's England. I think of Cassandra as a cross between Anne of Green Gables and Jane Austen's Emma. She's delightful.

Well, it's been fun answering these questions. I always enjoy thinking, talking, and writing about books.