My reading list for 2016 is an ECG of my life. Since 2013, I have been keeping track of the books I read, to have an accurate inventory of how many (or, sadly, sometimes, how few) books I have read during the year. It’s not complicated—just the year, and under that, the month I finished the book, along with the title and the author. Sometimes I remember to include the publication date, if I think it matters. For two Januarys now, I have posted an inventory of my favorites, in case they might interest you.
At the evolution of this year’s record, I am astounded that, without even looking at the months, I can pinpoint when my husband suffered his heart attack and underwent cardiac bypass surgery. My reading list parallels the narrative of my life!
In the first three months, I read non-fiction, exclusively. I devoured the New York Times columnists, especially Paul Krugman, Charles Blow, Frank Bruni, and Nicholas Kristof. Their columns, were they bound into an anthology, could count as a read. The lucid and courageous comments of those columnists steadied me through the flux and darkness of 2016, and I continue to count on them for courageous commentary.
As well, I was immersed in divergent books about religion. Ron Rolheiser’s Sacred Fire, a Christmas gift, and the sequel to The Holy Longing, that I read a few years ago, focuses on maturity, especially our responsibility, as aging adults, to give our lives away. Rolheiser suggests how we might do this and why we might want to do it, and offers some principles (ten) that would provide direction. To tantalize you, here are a few of those principles:
Live in gratitude and thank your Creator by enjoying your life.
Transform jealousy, anger, bitterness, and hatred rather than give them back in kind.
Let suffering soften your heart rather than harden your soul.
Live in a more radical sobriety.
In contrast, The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession by John Cornwell elucidates the motives behind the push for confession in the Catholic church, a perspective I needed to read. Like some books that reveal a dark side heretofore unrecognized in people, practices, or institutions, this book disillusioned. I realize that, even at my age, I have innocence to lose.
A counterpoint to those themes, two books connected to one of my passions, human nature. Malcom Gladwell’s David and Goliath explains the advantages of being the little guy, and why the little guy often wins. Daniel Pink’s To Sell is Human explores the idea that everyone is in sales, and the principles of sales can buttress any career. Unbroken, the story of the World War II pilot, Louis Zamporini, especially his years as a Japanese prisoner of war, picked up threads of both the nobility of the human spirit and the degradation of which it is also capable. I had to read this book in very small doses, and without eating or drinking, that’s how disturbing it was.
All the books after Unbroken are fiction. That’s when my husband was hospitalized. To manage the stress of his illness and the ugliness of the politics around me, I needed to escape. So, I went to my Books to Read list, and reconnected with the online ordering service of my local library. Fiction saved me. I didn’t come back to Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain until June, and then, only to finish it and return to fiction.
From that list, I would recommend :
Black and Blue by Anne Quindlen, a gripping novel about spousal violence.
The Dinner by Herman Koch, the unsettling story about the impact of family secrets on children.
The Rag and Bone Shop by Robert Cormier, another powerful commentary with a shocking ending on the influences that can shape a young person growing up, especially relations with both peers and adults.
Annabel by Kathleen Winter, that grapples with people’s responses when the unimaginable happens. A child is born a hermaphrodite (with the both male and female reproductive organs). What might be the implications for the child? the mother? the father? the doctor? grandparents? teachers? Who knows and who doesn’t? What factors might cause people to react the way they do?
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, a memoir that poses the question, How do children cope when parents struggle with addiction and narcissim?
The Color of Tea by Hannah Tunnicliffe, a stunning and captivating novel about the effects of work and friends on a marriage. The prose is incandescent, like gossamer. The story and its portraits are woven of simple words brought together in an original design, and set off with unusual and evocative comparisons. It’s an unassuming book I’m so glad I transfered to my own list after finding it on someone else’s.
By fall, I thought I could redirect to reality again. I picked up Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal, timely in that it had just won Canada Reads, and its theme dovetailed nicely with our parish refugee sponsorship project, which I co-chair. With apologies to Hill, my state of mind did not do the book justice.
I’ve come full circle, really, having just finished The Return of History: Conflict, Migration, and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century by Jennifer Welsh. The author contests the thesis of American political commentator Francis Fukuyama in his essay, "The End of History," who posits that, with the spread of Western liberal democracy after the end of the Cold War, "traditional power politics and large-scale conflicts" would diminish, leaving a "path toward a more peaceful world." Welsh suggests that, in fact, history, that is, the sequence of authoritarianism and conflict, is returning. Her explanations for this phenomenon mirror my own theory that feudalism is enjoying a renaissance. A tribute to Welsh, she goes beyond a description of the phenomenon and offers solutions for the ordinary person. This is a must-read.
Still on my desk, bookmarked, begging to be finished: Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen that I fished out of a give-away bin at the curb of a Calgary suburb, and La porte du ciel by Dominique Fortier, a shot-in-the-dark by a prize-winning author.
My reading life sustained me and challenged me during 2016. Just in case some of my selections might do the same for you, I share them.