2014 in Review, Part 2: Books

In the middle of high school I began recording all the new books I read in a pocket-sized notebook. The habit stuck. At the end of each year I review the year’s books and write a summary as a blog post or just for my personal records. This year I thought I’d kick things off with a twist – my husband’s favorites! The Man doesn’t keep a book list, but has a nose for good reads. In no particular order his three favorite books read this year were:

  1. In the Land of the Blue Burqas by Kate McCord. Review below, as it was also one of my favorites.
  2. World Order by Henry Kissinger. I second the motion, though I’m only half way through so it’s not on my book list. After laying a historical groundwork on the major regions affecting international relations, Kissinger offers a clear analysis of the challenges and requirements of a shared world order. Excellent, intelligent, engaging reading for anyone high school aged and up. About half of our gift list received this book for Christmas.
  3. Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). To quote the Amazon blurb, “Is truth knowable? If we know the truth, must we hide it in the name of tolerance? Cardinal Ratzinger engages the problem of truth, tolerance, religion and culture in the modern world…Ratzinger embraces the difficult challenge of meeting diverse understandings of spiritual truth while defending the Catholic teaching of salvation through Jesus Christ. “But what if it is true?” is the question that he poses to cultures that decry the Christian position on man’s redemption.” From previous years’ reading the Man also highly recommends Benedict XVI’s trilogy on the life of Jesus.

Over the past few years I’ve moved much of my book logging to Pinterest because I like the visual album of titles and the ability to include summaries and links. Pinterest has my reading lists for 2011 here, 2012 here, 2013 here, and 2014 here. I don’t include books I’ve re-read, skimmed, or left unfinished. Books read to the kids also don’t count.

I read 57 new books in 2014, with more of an average toward “fluff” than usual. The favorite books described here are the handful I couldn’t bear leaving and always raced to pick up again. A few even made me glad when the infant woke at 2:00 in the morning so I could jump back into my book!

  • In the Land of the Blue Burqas by Kate McCord. Completely mesmerizing. It’s written under a pseudonym by an American woman who worked for an NGO in post-9/11 Afghanistan for five years. Her story is full of eye-opening cultural examples and perspectives, but the book’s main focus is the author’s discussions with Afghan Muslim friends about Christ and faith. Her stories are great examples of respectful, honest, and carefully thought-through cross-cultural dialogue, as well as the profound effect of Biblical ideas in a culture where they are utterly unfamiliar. I disagree with her theology in a couple of places, but both my husband and I loved this book and could not put it down.
  • In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. I ended up doing a lot of armchair traveling this fall. Bryson’s story of his travels in Australia is funny, light, and (gently) informative. Along the way you learn a fair bit about Australian geography/history/environment. My previous scraps of remembered Australian history from school went something like: Aborigines….Captain Cook….transported convicts….gold rush….fence to contain rabbits….WWII….indigenous children sent to boarding schools….the present. As you can see, some filler was definitely in order. It’s not remotely a comprehensive work on Australian history (I picked out a copy of The Fatal Shore for that), but it’s a good quick read. Fair warning that his ascerbic treatment of those he encounters sometimes makes you cringe, a risk with any Bryson book.
  • Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield. A sharp-eyed protagonist comments on her life, family, and rural neighbors in pre-war Britain. This classic of British humor kept me chuckling and sympathizing with the author’s household and social woes all the way through. Delafield’s work is pleasant light reading. She uses a calmer, less hysterically relentless type of humor than P.G. Wodehouse or Jerome K. Jerome.
  • On the Beach by Nevil Shute. Appropriately enough I read this while vacationing…on the beach. This work was published in 1953 along with a raft of other post-nuclear holocaust novels. After nuclear bombs wipe out the northern hemisphere, southern Australians are warned that they will only survive until September. Shute’s story is very well written and the characters and premise are engaging. However, readers should brace for crushing depression. I’ll admit to letting loose a couple rants wondering why a) nobody just builds a well-stocked bunker with filtered air so that at least a segment of humanity can survive and emerge after the land recovers, and b) why they leave that poor baby in its crib. Someone please pick up the baby!
  • The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck wrote this book as a propaganda piece to encourage resistance fighters during WWII. It’s a good story and my favorite Steinbeck to date. An unnamed enemy force occupies a town easily, but faces resistance over time. I found it especially interesting because, despite being written in support of the occupied countries, it does not oversimplify or dehumanize the (unofficially German) enemy soldiers.
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. This was my first Gaiman, read on my sister-in-law’s recommendation. Gaiman draws you into an imaginative world of London Above and London Below. In this world normal life moves smoothly and obliviously around a bizarre world of vampires, scavengers, criminals, and heroes. The book has great humor and a creative plot. It’s completely addictive once you’re about 20 pages in. Frequently gruesome.
  • Unbroken: A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. This biography received great reviews, and just came out as a movie. I’ve read many POW memoirs, but this one stands out because the biographer chose to follow Zamperini’s story beyond his release from the POW camp and return to America. Many POW stories wrap up with a happy “hooray! they’re free!” finale. Instead, Hillenbrand unflinchingly looks at the destructive effect of so many years of deprivation, torture, and suffering on a man, his life, and his family in the years after his release. It makes the change all the more stunning when Zamperini encounters Christ and enters a new life transformed by Him.
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This is a book that sticks with you long after you’ve finished it. While much of the content would not be suitable for young readers, Adichie weaves a compelling story of a young Nigerian woman who moves to America and faces the challenges and joys of living in a new place, immigration, racism, long-distance relationships, family, and old friendships. Adichie has a gift for quickly sketching a scene so that you can feel it – the smell of chicken stewing or the feel of cold winter air with a hint of snow. I also found Adichie’s TED talk on “The Danger of a Single Story” interesting and thought-provoking.
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I think everyone read this this year, and with good reason. It’s a fantastic story, sort of a modern David Copperfield. There are a few sections where I felt the author got carried away and desperately needed someone to edit her verbose pontifications. Still, that leaves a good 700 pages to love.
  • Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China by Paul Theroux. Are all travel writers so…cynical? I don’t know, but I enjoyed following Theroux across Russia and all around China by train. While the internet can certainly be distracting, I love it for armchair traveling. If you’re stuck in the US with a passport-less infant it’s fun to hitch a ride on someone elses journey. I keep a map handy on one tab and google image searches for each location on another.
  • The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful by Myquillyn Smith. I read this in the wee hours while feeding our littlest one. It’s the perfect kick in the pants if you’re feeling a bit stuck with your home’s appearance and livability. While my style is very different from Smith’s, her approach toward creating a pleasant inviting space with the resources you have is doable for anyone. [I will quibble with her claim that it takes just a couple minutes to patch a nail hole, though. Sure, if you use the old dorm/renters trick of toothpaste, but not if you do it properly by filling the hole, sanding, spreading fill again if necessary, and painting. Small complaint, loved the book.]

As usual, I also categorized the titles I read by genre to map any reading patterns the year. Sorting the list like this always makes me spot habits and gaps I didn’t recognize at the time:

Classics

  • The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy
  • Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson (unfortunately found out it was an abridged version once I finished the whole thing)
  • The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt
  • Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth
  • Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun
  • Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
  • Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield
  • The Provincial Lady in London by E.M. Delafield
  • The Provincial Lady in America by E.M. Delafield
  • The Provincial Lady in Wartime by E.M. Delafield
  • The Provincial Lady in Russia by E.M. Delafield (have my doubts that the Kindle edition was complete)
  • Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens
  • Dear Enemy by Jean Webster
  • The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
  • Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner
  • Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
  • On the Beach by Nevil Shute
  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winnifred Watson
  • The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck

Mysteries

  • Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James
  • Death of an Expert Witness by P.D. James
  • The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
  • The Forgotten Affairs of Youth by Alexander McCall Smith

Current Fiction

  • Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith
  • A Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Horn
  • The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • Bertie Plays the Blues by Alexander McCall Smith
  • Love over Scotland by Alexander McCall Smith
  • Bud not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Circle by Dave Eggers
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  • The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Travel Writing

  • The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
  • Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China by Paul Theroux
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
  • I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after 20 Years Away by Bill Bryson
  • Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
  • In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

Non-fiction: Science, Theology, Family, Advice, Humor

  • Minimalism for Moms by Janice Thompson
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • The God of the Mundane by Matthew B. Redmond
  • Brown Babies, Pink Parents by Amy Ford
  • The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages by Shaunti Feldhahn
  • Unbroken: A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
  • Notes from a Blue Bike: The Art of Living Intentionally by Tsh Oxenreider
  • Farewell to the East End by Jennifer Worth (#3 in the Call the Midwife Trilogy)
  • Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth (#2 in the Call the Midwife Trilogy)
  • In the Land of the Blue Burqas by Kate McCord
  • What Did You Expect: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage by Paul David Tripp
  • Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan
  • My Neck of the Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich
  • Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv
  • The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful by Myquillyn Smith
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2 thoughts on “2014 in Review, Part 2: Books

  1. Had to grab out the laptop as it would take so long for me to fingertype this on my notepad! Glad you liked the Provincial Lady and Mrs Pettigrew as they are some of my favourites. I also like PD James and Alexander McCall Smith which I notice feature quite large on your list. Last year was a slow reading year for me; although I didn’t keep a record (for the first time in about 6 years because I couldn’t find the notebook – it is still buried somewhere in a packing box) I must have read the fewest books I ever have. I did pick up a bit towards the end of the year as morning sickness laid me pretty low and I spent many an evening in bed reading.

    You had a quite the Australian reading experience too – may I recommend the Billabong Books by Mary Grant Bruce (Little Bush Maid is the first) if you liked Seven Little Australians

    I have a couple of further recommendations since you liked the Provincial Lady and Mrs Pettigrew – some other favourites of mine are Mrs Tim of the Regiment by DE Stevenson, Miss Buncle’s Books by DE Stevenson, Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd and the Mrs Harris books by Paul Gallico.

    We are actually in the midst of a bookshelf edit; trying to cull the innumerable boxes of homeschool books I have purchased (now it looks like we won’t homeschool) and rationalise the books we have picked up at secondhand bookfairs on a whim but are actually unlikely to ever get around to reading. Our children’s books are out of control – but I find them hardest to part with. However, needs must as they are taking over the house and we are trying to get it ready to sell! The trouble is that in order to part with the children’s and homeschool books I feel I must at least read a bit of them first – which becomes a whole evening of reading. Yesterday saw me read two whole upper primary chapter books by well known Australian authors – both went on the ‘to keep’ pile

    • Ooh, such good book recommendations. Thank you! I actually noticed a few of those titles in the “customers who purchased this book also bought…” section below The Provincial Lady books on Amazon, but hesitated to pick them up since I knew nothing about them. Your comment solves that question!

      It was fun adding in more Australian reading than usual. I still sometimes reference that list of Australian authors you and your husband compiled on your blog a few years back. When you first wrote it I had the hardest time finding any of the books through our library (I think they only had…Banjo Patterson?). However, their selection has really improved in the past few years, as has the availability of many books affordably by Kindle. Our state also started a new free inter-library loan program, so if our small library doesn’t carry a book I can order it for free from any other library in the state. Definitely expands the affordable reading options! I’m copying this over to an email and typing more there.

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