Reading is my hobby of choice – and it has been since I started reading as a toddler. This photo can serve as proof that while most kids were playing with dolls or Legos, you could find me curled up on the couch with a book.
But despite the fact that I am a voracious reader (though I got nothing on my friend Emily), I often forget which books I have read. Last January I had the brilliant idea to start tracking which books I read as I went. I was inspired by my dad (who does the same), my favorite neighborhood librarian Rod, and the Powell’s staff picks best books of 2011 list (there’s definitely some overlap with my 2012 list). Anyway, I got lazy and forgetful and didn’t actually manage to track every book I read (I also started using GoodReads, which is awesome, but even with two lists of the books I was reading, I still couldn’t keep track!) but the final count of books read (and tracked) in 2012 is 54. Odds are I actually read a handful more, but if they didn’t make the list they clearly were not that memorable. After reviewing these books, I narrowed my list down to my 10 favorite, most memorable, thought-provoking, interesting, or just plain old entertaining books.
- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. After a near-death experience due to pneumonia at age 25, Dillard took a year to live alone in the Virginia backwoods and she chronicles her experience, season by season, in this book. This may be the single best book I read all year. Reading this book was like balm for my soul. I took months reading it, and I savored every sentence. Dillard described nature on a micro and macro level with intensity and clarity, while weaving in references to literature and Scripture and culture and throwing in some factoids to boot. This book is, in a word, Profound. It is a book I hope to always have on hand.
Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Kraukeur. This is a fascinating book about Mormon Fundamentalism and the history of the Mormon Church. Ever since taking Sociology of Religion in college, I’ve been fascinated with studying religious groups and Kraukeur’s account both intrigued and disturbed me. Highly recommended.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. I heard Pollan’s name come up over and over again in the nutrition classes I took in college and I finally had a chance to read one of his books. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan traces the origins and processes that create four different meals. In the process he investigates the difference between conventional and organic farming, he dabbles in vegetarianism, and he hunts for his own mushrooms – among other adventures. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Of course, at times it is simplistic and at other times you can see Pollan’s bias but there will always be a bias (and I tend to agree with much of what he says). If one image has stuck with me months after reading this it is the farm in California. When I get back to the States I hope I will have a different relationship with food – in part because of this book. Highly recommended to anyone who is interested in food and food systems.
9 Parts of Desire: The Hidden Lives of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks. Fascinating account about the lives of Muslim women in the Middle East. Brooks is not Muslim but she ties in the Koran often in an informative and respectful way. I gained a lot from reading this book while living in a Muslim country, even though it’s not in the Middle East.
Lust in Translation by Pamela Druckerman. Druckerman is a journalist and world traveler who found herself intrigued by marriage relationships – and extra-marital relationships – in different countries that she visited. So, she embarked on a study of love affairs across different cultures. I found this book in the sociology section at Powell’s and it was a fascinating read. The downside is that there’s not a ton of data out there, but she does a great job of citing her sources and describing methodology. Plus, she’s funny.
– The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. This book came highly recommended to me by Charis back when we were college roommates. She had to read it for one of her nursing classes and when I joined my mom, dad, and sister for Becca’s college visit to Carroll College the book showed up again as required reading for one of Carroll’s nursing classes (Becca’s intended major). We bought the book there and I read it before Becca took it to college. Fadiman tells the tale of Hmong immigrants from Laos who moved to California and their struggle to survive in a new land while maintaining their strong cultural identity. Fadiman hones in on their experiences receiving medical care because traditional Hmong medical practices have consistently clashed with American medical standards with sometimes disastrous results. This book is a little dense because it’s rather academic and requires concentration but it’s well worth the read.
– Little Princes by Conor Grennan. This is Grennan’s account of his life-changing journey to Nepal where he worked in an orphanage with adorable little Nepalese children who turned out to not really be orphans after all. Little Princes chronicles Grennan’s journey to find the families of these children. I loved the story, I loved the storytelling. I laughed, I cried, I couldn’t put it down. It reminded me of my own dreams and encouraged me. Nepal is now on my list of countries to visit.
1. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. This book was first recommended to me by my good friend Michael and I didn’t think about it again until I noticed my friend Matt reading it here in Indonesia. I borrowed the book from him and I devoured it. McCann’s story begins with a man walking on a tightrope between the two Twin Towers in New York city. Bystanders are perplexed, amazed, and enthralled, and so is the reader. Then suddenly the story shifts and McCann introduces a new character…and then another and another. Eventually, these characters all weave together in a brilliant and beautiful tapestry. Amazing.
2. The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. I first read MacDonald for one of my theology classes in college when I read The Princess and Curdie which is actually the sequel to this book. Thus, I was familiar with the characters and MacDonald’s writing style but the story was new. I loved it. It made me feel like I was in another world and like I was at home, all at once. It was comforting, familiar, but also new. In my opinion, MacDonald’s writing is classically brilliant and I can’t wait to read more.
3. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. I have DeeDee to thank for this book because she handed it to me when she finished it and said, “This book is great, read it!” I am so glad I did. I couldn’t put it down, and I was so drawn into the story. I laughed, I wept, and I felt like I knew the characters. The story takes place in Ethiopia and begins with an unlikely relationship that forms between a chaste nun and a brilliant, haunted, and socially inept doctor with little interest in forming any ties with another human being. Verghese ties in the turbulent Ethiopian history of the times which determines the fate of several characters. This is a well-crafted and thought-provoking story of the repercussions of bitterness and the meaning of reconciliation (or sometimes lack therefore).
4. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. I found this book topping Powell’s list of best books from 2011 so I eagerly checked it out from the library. It gripped me, and I couldn’t really figure out why. It read like pulp fiction, but it was actually good writing (Eugenides previously won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Middlesex which I also read this year and thoroughly enjoyed). The story begins on college graduation day in 1982 and follows a number of recent graduates as they embark on their post-college adventures, travels, and occasional disasters. Reading this in the year after I graduated (and as I set out on my own travels and adventures) felt very timely and relatable, even though the story is set a few decades in the past. Warning that there is quite a bit of sex in this book.
5. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I’m sure I read some of these stories before but I did not remember them and they are BRILLIANT. I especially loved reading them after having watched BBC’s series entitled Sherlock. Each episode is a modern retelling of one of Doyle’s short stories and both are excellent in their own right.
– Every book by Margaret Atwood that I read this year:
– Oryx and Crake: This is the first book in Atwood’s MaddAdam trilogy – her latest works. It’s set in a gritty, post-apolcalyptic world but full of flash backs to a time before tragedy strikes. The story centers around three main characters: Jimmy, Oryx, and Crake. I won’t say more because it’s best just to read this. For me, this was a little hard to get into, but it’s worth it and (IMHO) the sequel is even better.
– The Year of the Flood: This is the sequel to Oryx and Crake – the second book in her MaddAdam trilogy. This was more gripping than O&C. This book doesn’t pick up where it’s prequel left off – on the contrary the stories are subtly woven together and Atwood continues to richly illustrate her futuristic, post-apoloyptic world. I can’t wait to read the culmination of the story in MaddAdam, the third book (to be released in 2013).
– The Blind Assassin: I read this many years ago and remembered loving it but I had forgotten the plot line. When I picked it up again I was sucked right back in and thoroughly enjoyed it. Atwood weaves together several story lines from the past and the (then) present day with a story centered on two sisters. I won’t say more – just read it. Highly recommended.
– The Handmaid’s Tale: This has been on my to-read list for quite a while. For some reason I imagined it to be set in 16th century England or something but it was pure Atwood and definitely NOT a piece of historical fiction. It made me rather sad and depressed but it’s still an excellent book that would provide great fodder for feminist discussion.
Actually, The Blind Assassin made the list of Top 5 Fiction books but I removed it because I read it back in high school and the five books listed above were new to me in 2012. Atwood is a brilliant author and if this list was a list of my favorite authors from 2012, Atwood would win, hands down. One of my 2013 goals is to read every book by her that I can get my hands on.
– Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott. The first Lamott book I read was Traveling Mercies, Lamott’s memoir about her journey to faith, which was required reading in one of my college classes. Traveling Mercies sparked great conversation (and a good amount of controversy) amongst my classmates and it left quite an impact on me. Since then I’ve been meaning to read all of Lamott’s books and finally I got around to reading Imperfect Birds. This is a novel by Lamott about a mother and her teenage daughter and their beautiful, strained, messed-up, loving relationship. The mother has her share of issues (a former depressed alcoholic with relationship difficulties) that at times blind her to the reality of raising her teenage daughter – a beautiful and bright straight-A student whose secret life is filled with drama, drugs, and boys. I loved this book because it felt familiar. Though my own high school years were pretty different from the picture painted in this book, it was still very relatable because Lamott has a gift for creating real, tangible, flawed, likable characters.
Looking Ahead to 2013…
I’m halfway through two books at the moment (couldn’t quite finish them in time to add to the 2012 list!). One is another Lamott book: Bird by Bird – Lamott’s words of wisdom to inspiring writers. I’m not an inspiring writer but I just love reading Lamott’s writing and think much of what she has to say applies to life beyond the written word. And secondly, I’m reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo…finally! I have been meaning to read this book for years! I’m a full 42% into it (thanks Kindle) which equates to 750 pages…and I have another 1000 to go. I am loving it, though, and I can’t wait to watch the old musical rendition before I (at some point) see the new movie which I am hearing rave reviews about (oh, to be in America, where I could see films whenever I wanted). Les Mis may be the longest book I’ve read to date and it may just make an appearance on next year’s list…until then, happy reading!