Friday, January 10, 2020

2019 reading: fiction

Before I proceed with my recap of fiction reading from 2019, I need to make two corrections to my last post that summarized non-fiction. I realize this means little, if anything, to readers here, but I am just anal-retentive enough not to want a permanent record of inaccurate information.

So please indulge me.

First, I failed to mention a non-fiction book, "The Education of Ernie Dumas," by Ernie Dumas, which was given to me by a good friend in Little Rock. This one would be of little interest to anyone who never lived in Arkansas or followed the politics there. Because I grew up there and lived there as an adult until 1997, it was tremendously interesting to me. Dumas was a reporter and editorial writer for the now-defunct Arkansas Gazette, and was born and raised in my hometown. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. (With this, the number of books read in 2019 was 38 rather than 37).

The other error was when I said I had never read anything by Henri Nouwen until 2019. Soon after I published the post, I remembered a few years ago I read his beautiful account of the story of the prodigal son, "The Return of the Prodigal Son."

As they say in the journalism business, the writer regrets the error(s).

On to fiction for 2019. I read John Grisham's last two, "The Reckoning," and "Guardians." Say what you will about him and the way he churns out books, but I love his storytelling. These did not disappoint.

Years ago I read "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson, but only last year got around to reading the other two in the non-chronological trilogy: "Lila" and "Home." I compare Robinson's character development to Wendell Berry, and that's high praise.

"The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver had been passed on to my wife in paperback years ago, and was on the bookshelf in our closet. For whatever reason, one day it caught my eye and I decided to read it. It's the story of a missionary family that moved from Georgia to the Congo in the late 1950s and how it affected their lives. It's masterfully written and I enjoyed it immensely, but as I read I couldn't help but think Kingsolver had some kind of agenda, perhaps pertaining to evangelical Christianity. This opinion is shared by some others with whom I have spoken, and apparently it's even stronger in some of her more recent writing. It was still a good book, and I usually look past agendas, but let the unsuspecting reader beware.

I really enjoyed "An American Marriage" by Tayari Jones, the subject matter of which is exactly what the title describes, but specifically about marriage in the African-American culture.

A friend at work put me onto Greg Iles, a southern author who has a series about a lawyer-turned-writer (think Grisham-ish) who gets into some pretty outlandish  and far-fetched crime-related situations. I read the first three, "Quiet Game," "Turning Angel" and "The Devil's Punchbowl." These provided entertaining, lose-yourself-in-the story reading and I liked them a lot.

Speaking of, I've read a few in Lee Child's Jack Reacher series, and last year added "The Midnight Line." I wasn't looking to read another, but when I was leaving Vienna last May to come home, I had finished everything I had taken to read on that trip. This one, in paperback, was in an airport bookstore and was part of a select group in English, so I picked it up to start on the ten-hour flight. It kept my attention enough that I finished it when I got home.

Continuing series reading, I am indebted to longtime and blog friend Kelly, who told me about Donna Leon and her Commissioner Brunetti series, set in Venice. I read three, "Death at La Fenice," "Death in a Strange Country" and "Dressed for Death."  I read the first one not long after returning from Venice, which made it even more enjoyable. Like Louise Penny's delightful Inspector Gamache series, there are quirky, lovable characters and interesting stories with unexpected plot twists. I look forward to reading more.

And speaking of the Inspector Gamache series, I'm slowly making it through those, and read "The Cruelest Month" and "A Rule Against Murder" last year.

And finally on the series front, I completed "The Colors of All the Cattle," the latest (at the time) in Alexander McCall Smith's "Number One Ladies Detective Agency" series. Great reading and this one was as good as all the others.

"Where'd You Go Bernadette?" by Maria Semple was made into a movie last year, and when I saw a trailer, I decided I would like to read the book first, as I often do. It's great, and I highly recommend it, but I can't speak to the movie as I never got around to seeing it.

I still love to read anything by British author Nick Hornby. At an Airbnb I stayed in last winter, the owners had a copy of "State of the Union," a hilarious short account of a modern marriage. I read it in two sittings.

"Where the Crawdads Sing" by Delia Owens, a first-time novel by this nature writer, was a blockbuster bestseller last year. I'm usually not one for the "latest and greatest" and one that my wife builds up so much that there's no way it can live up to her hype, but I loved this. It's a beautifully written coming-of-age story about an endearing young girl who accomplishes more than she could ever imagine, overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. That, along with the author's incredible descriptions of the South Carolina beaches and marsh, captivated me from page one.

I've read several by Charles Martin, a Christian author who writes stories with a spiritual theme without being preachy, and added "When Crickets Cry" to the list. This is a favorite among many Martin fans, the story of a man with a past who builds an unlikely friendship with a little girl fighting to have a future.

"The Most Fun We Ever Had" by Claire Lombardo showed up as a suggestion on my Kindle. The library had it available, so I tried it. It was one of those books in which I didn't like any of the characters, but I couldn't put it down.

"Summons to Memphis" by Peter Taylor is a great story about a Memphian who relocates to New York City, summoned back (hence the name) by his manipulative sisters to try and prevent their widowed father from remarrying. This was written in 1986 and was a Pulitzer Prize winner. Read it and you'll understand why.

"Boy's Life" by Robert McCammon was my favorite fiction book of the year. McCammon, from Alabama, is an author I would have never thought of reading, especially since he made a name for himself in the horror genre. (Nothing wrong with that, just not my thing). This one, however, traces a slice of the life of an 11-year-old boy who, along with his father, witness a car plunging into a river and a desperate rescue attempt. Against that backdrop, McCammon weaves a story that includes mystery, a bit of mysticism, and painful and poignant family life. I found it a bit like "Ordinary Grace" by William Kent Krueger, but with a different twist. I'm really not doing it justice, so trust me and put it on your TBR.


As a final comment, I continue to enjoy electronic reading (along with print) and I have no doubt it's the reason my reading has increased. As it is with books in print, publishers limit releases of the electronic editions. Now that libraries have gotten in on this, which is where I get most of my books, I have to put holds on some of the more popular titles, just as with print editions. I get an email when it's available.

The problem is, I might have a number of books on hold, and I might get several emails in a matter of a couple of days, notifying me a book is available for download. If someone else is waiting for it, I only have it for 21 days. Unfortunately that seems to be the case with a number of books I want to read.  At the end of 21 days, I can buy it, but that kind of defeats the purpose when I'm trying to avoid that in the first place.

Oh well, a good problem to have, I suppose. I'll go to my grave with books still unread. But I have a hunch there will be reading in heaven.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

2019 reading: non-fiction

Of the 37 books I read in 2019, 14 were non-fiction.

Rather than review my favorites, as I have done in the past, I'm going to tell you about all the non-fiction books. Although there were some I liked better than others, and a couple that definitely rise to top as I survey them, it's too difficult to pick favorites this year.

For no particular reason than they came my way or piqued my interest, the majority of non-fiction I read this year was in the spiritual genre. I'm not going to separate them from the others in my narrative, but you'll definitely notice it.

I started the year with "Thirst," a superb autobiographical account of Scott Harrison's spiritual journey and his transformation from a fast-living nightclub promoter to the founder of one of the world's most successful non-profits that works to provide clean water to impoverished areas around the world. I was so taken with this one I gave a copy to all of my immediate family members last Christmas.

I continued with David Sedaris, who I discovered in 2018, this time with "Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls."

Although some of my more conservative believer friends might raise their eyebrows, after reading and hearing quotes from him for years, I read three by Father Richard Rohr this year: "Immortal Diamond," "Falling Upward" and "What the Mystics Know." I have become a big fan, and I'll read more of his.

Renowned theologian Henri Nouwen is another I have heard quoted but have never read one of his books. I chose "Making All Things New" in which he explores the age-old theme of Christ's regenerative power in us. This one is heavy, and worth the effort.

Two unconventional Christian women provided some great reading for me this year. Nadia Boltz-Weber's "Pastrix" has some similarities to "Thirst," in that she describes her faith journey as she morphs from a stand-up to comic to a pastor, but it's largely the story of a ragtag congregation, much like her, she ends of leading. She reminded me some of Anne Lamott, though even edgier. Weber's story is not for the faint of heart. But if you read with an open mind and the conviction that God's grace is bigger than you can ever imagine, you'll find nuggets of beauty.

Similarly, River Jordan (yes that's really her name), a Nashville author, describes her own winding pilgrimage in "Confessions of a Christian Mystic." With humor and poignancy, she gave me much to think about.

I heard Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, as a guest on a podcast I frequent. Her "Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I've Loved)" is the story of her cancer diagnosis. The title comes from one of the many platitudes she heard from well-meaning people as she struggled to come to terms with dealing with this horrible disease and thinking about the possibility of leaving her husband and young daughter behind.

"Twelve Patients," by Eric Manheimer, is the inspiration of the NBC television show, "New Amsterdam." Manheimer was medical director at New York's Bellevue Hospital for 13 years, and his narratives of 12 different patients he comes to know give a glimpse into his thoughts on the health care system. I watched season one of "New Amsterdam," but for various reasons have not returned and probably will not. I put "Twelve Patients" in my Kindle library queue when I was watching the TV show and when it finally came up, long after I had finished watching the show, I decided to try it. I'm really glad I did, and it's better than the show.

This one even surprised me when I decided to read it, but when I heard Kathi Lee Gifford (who now lives just a few miles from me) describe her many trips to Israel, and the book she wrote about it -- "The Rock, the Road and the Rabbi" -- I was intrigued. I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. I have many friends who have made the Holy Land trip, and many who plan to. I have never had a lot of interest in going. But hearing from those who have gone, and reading this book, is slowly changing that.

(Although I'm not picking favorites, the next three were a cut above the rest).

"Maybe You Should Talk to Someone" is therapist Lori Gotlieb's account of how she became a therapist; her description of some case studies from her practice; and her own experience of going to therapy. Humorous and poignant, it almost made me cross the line and go for counseling myself. I loved this.

Scott Newport's "Digital Minimalism" is, in my opinion, a must-read for all of us who love the convenience and efficiency the computer age has brought us, but want to keep it in check. Even if you don't care about that, read this book for some of the fascinating facts and statistics. I can't do it justice here and if I could make you read two books from my non-fiction reading this year, it would be this one and the next.

"The Ragamuffin Gospel" by Brennan Manning is perhaps the most beautiful narrative about grace I have ever read. Manning, who died in 2013, was a Franciscan priest. He was also an alcoholic. He also struggled coming to terms with how God could love him. This one blew me away, folks.

I hope you found something you might also enjoy here. As always, I'll be anxious to hear your thoughts and, of course, your own recommendations. I'll soon be back with my thoughts on fiction I read this year.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas Eve from Cuba

It was another rollicking International Christmas Eve at our house.

For the 12th year, we celebrated the food and culture of another region and country. This year it was Cuba.

We choose the country mid-year, and Wife begins planning doing her research. One thing she learned this year was that, for many of the years (30, maybe?) Cuba was under the rule of Castro, Christmas was not celebrated. So finding Cuban Christmas traditions was not easy.

But finding recipes and décor to lend ambiance to the occasion? She came through in spades, as always, and she even found a playlist of Christmas music with a Cuban beat!

Here is a glimpse of the party last night. Merry Christmas to all!