Happy new year, dear friends! Following the lead of my other blogging friends, I think it’s time to start a tradition of posting the books I’ve read this past year (many alongside my daughter), and some of the books I hope to finish in 2016. I would love to hear your favorite books of 2015, if you can take the time to comment, or link to your own book posts!
It seems I read a lot of survival at sea books, an adventure genre that never gets old for me. I started with Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan and followed that by Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, in which Louis Zamperini follows being shot down and lost at sea with surviving a Japanese POW camp in the latter part of WWII. I then finished this genre streak with Endurance, about Ernest Shackleton’s ill fated trip to Antarctica.
Speaking of sea stories, I finally read Melville’s Moby Dick, a long time bucket list item, as it was on Miss T’s reading list as well. Other literature selections we made it through include Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Hugo’s Les Miserables (I freely admit to skimming through many of Hugo’s digressions – although his assessment of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo is not to be missed), To Kill a Mockingbird (I could read that one again and again), and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, about the emptiness of wealth in 1920’s America.
Along the lines of Gatsby, but written in 2011, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain tells the story of Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson from her point of view. It, too, comes across as a strong indictment of the Jazz Age, and perhaps the trauma of WWI, as gradually a loving couple is torn apart by the excesses of their lifestyle and the ghosts of war. In addition, Miss T and I together read another critical look at WWI from the perspective of a young life torn apart by it: A Testament of Youth, the memoir of feminist, pacifist author Vera Britten.
We finished Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People with The Great Democracies this year, covering the latter half of the 19th century. We also read material from that era in American history, in particular Arguing About Slavery by William Lee Miller. This book examines in excruciating detail the legislative battles over the issue of slavery, which Congress would gladly have avoided, even to the point of writing legislation to ignore any petitions relating to slavery, if not for the work of dedicated abolitionists and John Quincy Adams, who returned to the Senate after his term as POTUS. The parallel to the abortion debate today is unmistakeable: when does a government have the responsibility to make what is arguably immoral, illegal as well?
Science reading, of course, placed high on the list. We read the biography of Marie Curie by her daughter, Eva. We also read the second volume in Asimov’s Understanding Physics, as well as Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman and A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking. We finished The Microbe Hunters by de Kruif, and I detoured into reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, which I have yet to finish. We enjoyed two science books that cover topics in biology with a touch of activism: E.O. Wilson’s Diversity of Life and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. In fact, Miss T has decided she will no longer eat beef that isn’t grass fed, and thanks to Wilson’s idea that our willingness to depart from a limited diet can do much to save plant diversity, she’s tried a couple of exotic fruits that she otherwise would not have allowed into her mouth. A win for bibliotherapy!
There were a number of books I started this year that I didn’t finish, I’m ashamed to admit, but in addition to the book on cancer I also hope to finish Alan Turing: The Enigma, which was a book group selection that has tested my faculties easily as much as the above physics books, and G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, which describes how he came to accept the Christian faith in a way that is remarkable dense, but certainly interesting. Now that I’ve read Karen Glass’s book Consider This, which looks at the classical roots of a Charlotte Mason education, I hope to finish David Hicks’s book Norms and Nobility and possibly C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man. I intend, too, to give my Spanish a workout by finishing Doña Perfecta. That’s as close to a New Year’s reading resolution as I get, ladies and gents.
Three books that disappointed me were Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns (not bad, but perhaps I’m finding the theme of how women can be abused in patriarchal systems a bit tired?), Hardy’s Far from the Maddening Crowd (shudder, but perhaps I didn’t give it enough of a chance, as I had to return it to the library before finishing) and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (just bad, bad, bad – really not worth the time).
My favorite book of 2015? Hands down, it was West With the Night, by Beryl Markham. A contemporary of Ernest Hemingway’s, she grew up in Kenya, and would, as a child, join her native playmates hunting boar, among other adventures. She was by turns a racehorse trainer, a bush pilot, and the first woman to fly solo east to west across the Atlantic. Despite the fact that she had little, if any, formal education, the book is gloriously written. In fact, Hemingway himself had this to say about her:
She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers
If I could only aspire to such lofty heights as a writer.