Monday, November 3, 2014

a second year of books.

Last autumn I posted a round-up of my favorite books from the past year of reading; as autumn rolls around once more, I was determined to undertake the project again. I started keeping track of the books I read and films I watch, as I explained last October, because I wanted a better way to remember the art I was encountering--partly to better make recommendations, and partly to keep those ideas that inspired or challenged me more firmly in mind; recall has always felt slippery for me unless I actually write it down, keep a record.

This feels true not only of the geeky little spreadsheets I keep to track books and films, but also in a larger sense, why I keep chugging away on this little blog.  I want to be able to look back and remember: yes, this moved me and changed me deeply; oh yes, that was when I first encountered that book; oh, look at the patterns in my reading habits, and how they reflect the season of life I was in at the time.  I want to be able to remember, for reasons as shallow as finding my own story interesting, and as profound as my firm belief that looking back is often the best way to realize grace that may once have been hidden.

A few interesting observations for this second year of books: I read fewer memoirs this year, but a lot of fiction (a possible factor: that darn depression, yearning for distraction); the majority of the authors who penned the books featured here are female, quite unintentionally; and there are far more Christian authors writing about depression, darkness, and deconstruction of the self and of theology than I ever realized.  I am unspeakably grateful for their writing and for their generous offering of insight from their own journeys, which helped me stumble along in the right direction during a difficult year.

Without further ado...a second year of books.

Best Memoirs

The Liars' Club and Cherry by Mary Karr.  These are the only memoirs about which I felt strongly enough to feature this year, but oh--can Mary Karr write.  One could practically study these books as writing textbooks, so skilled is she at weaving together a story, and yet she reads as effortless, conversational.  The Liars' Club and Cherry serve as parts one and two of what would ultimately become a autobiographical trilogy, though I have yet to read the final book, in large part because I can't quite bear to be done.  Karr is poetic, haunting, vulgar, and searingly honest in her recollections, beginning with her dysfunctional and impoverished Texan childhood, as featured in The Liars' Club.  

It's here we first encounter Mary's volatile family: an alcoholic daddy who delights in telling tall tales to his fellow oil-field workers, an artistic yet psychotic mother who has been married seven times, and an older sister, Lecia, who assumes the role of calm and reasonable adult in lieu of any sane parent to be found.  Cherry continues where The Liars' Club leaves off, tracing the events of Karr's teenage years, including explorations of her awakening sexuality, defiance against authority, and attempts to find friendship, let alone romance, in a small Texas town that tends to isolate the unorthodox.  While her parents and their marriage feature prominently in The Liar's Club, it is adolescent Karr who takes center stage in Cherry, and isn't that exactly what it means to be a teenager?  Mary Park writing for Amazon wryly observes of Karr, "(E)ven when she's recounting a dirty joke, she can't help but employ a poet's precise and musical vision," and it's exactly this balance between sharp wit and beauty that makes Karr's writing so breathtaking (and fun) to behold.

Best Fast, Fun Reads

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell.  Simply put, this is a story about first love.  The titular characters are sixteen-year-old misfits living in Nebraska: Eleanor is poor, curvy, and red-headed; Park is half-Asian in sprawling white suburbia and interested in comic books when sports are the ticket to the in-crowd.  Their blossoming romance involves a daily bus ride, comic books, and mix tapes, but the book also deals with more serious themes; namely, Eleanor's unstable family situation, as well as adolescent bullying.  The story is not idealistic or even unrealistic--but it will likely make you smile in remembrance of your own first experiences with love, intense and consuming and wildly confusing as it was.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty.  I'm a Liane Moriarty fan.  I am.  She feeds a part of me that craves clever and quick and twisty, the part of me that as a teenager faithfully watched The WB.  I've read several of her novels, and nearly all of them feature the same sort of characters: middle-class, quirky but successful women, all navigating issues of marriage, parenthood, and self, and most importantly, the plot always driven by some mystery or unraveling secret that compels you to keep reading until the final big reveal.  This book isn't necessarily special among her books (I think most fans would agree What Alice Forgot holds that honor), but it was a delicious and satisfying read.  Big Little Lies follows three women, all mothers at a small suburban school and all navigating their own challenges and secrets.  From the beginning, we know someone has died, but we don't know who, how, or why.  It's scandalous, it's funny, and it deals with domestic abuse--not an easy combination, but Moriarty pulls it off with pizzazz.

The Time of My Life by Cecelia Ahern.  The premise sounds a little trite, I confess: the main character Lucy repeatedly receives and ignores a strange appointment request, only to find out her own Life, as personified by a young man, is determined to get her attention and initiate some change.  Lucy's continued attempts to stay busy (or numb) enough to the point of distraction are constantly interrupted by her own Life, whose health suffers each time Lucy chooses denial or deceit--a bit silly at times, perhaps, but still an interesting concept to flesh out.  Like last year's What Alice Forgot, despite the overall chick-lit vibe, this book led to authentic reflection for me, so I threw it in here under the lighter fare.

Best Fiction

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  This is the story of Ifemelu, born and raised in Nigeria, who leaves her homeland as a young adult to continue her studies in America.  The book weaves back and forth in time, granting us glimpses of Ifemelu's life in Nigeria--her impoverished but happy upbringing and high school sweetheart Obinze take center stage--and then flashing forward to various moments during Ifemelu's fifteen years abroad in the U.S., including her present-day life as a Princeton fellow and successful blogger critiquing and observing matters of race in the West.  As a white American, I had much to learn from this book's distinction between the experiences of a non-American blacks and American blacks, particularly in light of the fact that the author acknowledges many of Ifemelu's experiences were deeply informed by her own.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver.  This is Kingsolver's first published novel, and while other works hold higher places of honor in my heart (namely Flight Behavior and a truly epic The Poisonwood Bible), all the elements that make Kingsolver a master storyteller are present here: a relatable and gritty cast of characters, a snapshot of small town life, and wise but unforced insight on relationships and wider society.  Taylor Greer has grown weary of her native rural Kentucky and heads west; by the time she reaches Tucsan, AZ, she has an abandoned Native American child in her front seat and two flat tires.  Taylor names the baby Turtle, finds work in the local tire garage, and rents a room with another struggling single mother, all the while building trust with her young charge.  Against the impoverished desert backdrop, characters grapple with issues of domestic abuse, motherhood, refugees, and religion, and yet there are genuinely funny moments, and a sense of hope interwoven throughout their stories.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.  It begins: "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974."  This is a stunning saga of a novel, tracing generations and spanning continents, from wartime Turkey to the racially-charged Detriot in the 1960s, all following a small gene and its ultimate expression in the body of a Greek-American teenage girl.  And yet--I'll pause to say it feels cheap to reduce this book to being merely the story of a hermaphrodite, because it's more complex and far-reaching than that; this is also a story about immigration, the American dream, love, family, and identity.  Despite its hefty size, you'll want to rip through this engrossing novel as quickly as possible.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.  Hmmm, this is the third novel in this category to follow a group of characters over several decades--perhaps the let's look at the big picture concept of life struck me as especially necessary over the past year (or perhaps it's simply a hip novel format at the moment?).  Wolitzer's cast of characters is first introduced to us as teenagers at a summer arts camp, and we follow them through middle age, noting the divergence from their once similar lives into starkly different adult experiences.  Despite the decades-long friendships that are formed and sustained, themes of competition, jealousy, and class feature prominently.  It is a fascinating and unflinching examination of power and its affect on relationships, and in particular, the question of being special.

Best Nonfiction

If You Knew Me You Would Care by Zainab Salbi. "I learned that a vulnerable person may take what is provided to her in times of need but that does not replace her need for respect and for maintaining her own dignity and integrity in the process...there is one more step needed to complete the process of reaching out and building bridges of peace in the world--to look past that person's victimhood and see their personhood." -Zainab Salbi.

I highly recommend this stunning book of photographs that also features the stories of beautiful, resilient, brave women from DR of the Congo, Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, in their own words. In addition to discussing their personal tragedies, the women interviewed are asked about their definitions of war and peace, as well as the ways they have struggled--and flourished--as survivors of war, poverty, rape, and worse. This book is stunning, heart-wrenching, and ultimately hopeful.

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink.  An incredible piece of investigative journalism, Five Days at Memorial re-creates and then closely examines the events that occurred at a New Orleans hospital devastated by Hurricane Katrina.  With vivid detail, physician-turned-journalist Fink draws us into the struggle for survival by patients and medical workers alike, and the controversy surrounding the decision by frazzled health workers to designate certain patients last for rescue.  While the first half of the book re-creates the five days as referenced in the title, the second half explores the criminal allegations against several health professionals accused of lethally injecting patients to accelerate their deaths.  At this point, I will blatantly rip off the original NY Times review of the book: "Although she had the material for a gripping disaster story, Dr. Fink has slowed the narrative pulse to investigate situational ethics: what happens when caregivers steeped in medicine’s supreme value, preserving life, face traumatic choices as the standards of civilization collapse...That so many people, starkly divided over the question of whether crimes had been committed, come off as decent and appealing makes this book an absorbing read. Dr. Fink brings a shimmering intelligence to its many narrative cul-de-sacs, which consider medical, legal and ethical issues."  Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Fink's reporting allows space for the reader to come to her own conclusions.

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon.  Solomon spent a full decade interviewing families affected by a wide variety of exceptional children, organizing the book by challenges faced: we encounter families affected by deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe physical disabilities, prodigies, children conceived by rape, adolescent criminals, and transgender individuals. Throughout, Solomon's observations and stories about these families distinguish between vertical identities, or identities we inherit from our parents, like religion or height or sense of humor; and horizontal identities, or significant ways in which a child's genetics, values, or preferences differs from that of his parents--and then observes, with copious detail and wisdom, the ways in which these differences can be extraordinarily complex for families to navigate.  “There is no such thing as reproduction,” Solomon points out early in the book, only acts of “production," and while parenting is clearly painful for many of the families we meet, Solomon (and we) are astonished by their capacity for patience and grace as they attempt their best to parent the children they've got--not the children they expected or even hoped for.

Best Books on Spirituality
For the following books, I thought I'd share a meaningful passage from each selection rather than attempt a blurb for each--partly because each of these books was so important to me that I attempted to copy whole sections (chapters) down in my journal, and partly because this blog post has taken me over a week to write and I am quotes will have to pique your interest.  The selections I present here were all copied out into my personal journal at one point or another, and thus especially moving or challenging to me.

Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor (her books Leaving Church and An Altar in the World were also incredibly meaningful to me this past year).  "John's answer is not simple, but in the simplest possible terms, he says that the dark night is God's gift to you, intended for your liberation.  It is about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachment to all the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, your positive and negative evaluations of yourself as a believer in God, your tactics for manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God.  All of these are substitutes for God, John says.  They all get in God's way.  The late Gerald May, who also wrote his own book about John, called them addictions.  In many cases, he said, we should give thanks for them, because it is our addiction to some God substitute or another that finally brings us to our knees, by helping us realize how far we have strayed from our heart's true desire."

Falling Upward
by Richard Rohr.  "To let go of the loyal solider will be a severe death, and an exile from your first base...Normally we will not discharge our loyal solider until he shows himself to be wanting, incapable, inadequate for the real issues of life--as when we confront love, death, suffering, subtlety, sin, mystery, and so on.  It is another form of the falling and dying we keep talking about...When you first discharge your loyal solider, it will feel like a loss of faith or loss of self.  But it is only the death of the false self, and it is often the birth of the soul...No one oversees his or her own demise willingly, even when it is the false self that is dying.  God has to undo our illusions secretly, as it were, when we are not watching and not in perfect control, say the mystics."

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen.  "It goes something like this: I am not so sure anymore that I have a safe home, and I observe other people who seem to be better off than I.  I wonder how I can get to where they are.  I try hard to please, to achieve success, to be recognized.  When I fail, I feel jealous of resentful of others.  When I succeed, I worry that others will be jealous or resentful of me.  I become suspicious or defensive and increasingly afraid that I won't get what I so much desire or will lose what I already have.  Caught in this tangle of needs and wants, I no longer know my own motivations.  I feel victimized by my surroundings and distrustful of what others are doing or saying.  Always on my guard, I lose my inner freedom and start dividing the world into those who are for me and those who are against me.  I wonder if anyone really cares.  I start looking for validation of my distrust.  And wherever I go, I see them, and I say: 'No one can be trusted.' And then I wonder whether anyone ever really loved me.  The world around me grows dark.  My heart grows heavy.  My body is filled with sorrows.  My life loses meaning.  I have become a lost soul."

When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman. "You have learned that it is impossible to divide things neatly, and that the second you begin to define something, you limit it. There is no such thing as 'cut and dried' in a world of broken humanity. Gray bleeds into gray bleeds into gray, no matter how you slice it.”

Daring Greatly by BrenĂ© Brown.  "Daring greatly is not about winning or losing.  It's about courage.  In a world where scarcity and shame dominate, and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive.  Uncomfortable.  It's even a little dangerous at times.  And, without question, putting ourselves out there means there's a far greater risk of feeling hurt.  But as I look back on what Daring Greatly has meant to me, I can say honestly that nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous, and hurtful as believing that I'm standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like if I had the courage to show up and let myself be seen."


Happy reading!  Any recommendations for me?

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