The Year in Books 2016

A new year, a new look at the books of the past year!

In rereading my book blog of 2015, I discovered that while the sea beckoned me then, it would be the farm that captured my attention in 2016. This was the year my daughter and I discovered Wendell Berry, Willa Cather, Jane Smiley, and Stella Gibbons. I read two of Berry’s works set in rural Kentucky, in the fictional town of Port William: Jayber Crow tells the story of the town barber who is accepted into the Port William Membership as a young man and lives out his entire life there, never starting a family but intimately involved in the lives of others. Hannah Coulter is an honest, sensitive tale of womanhood told from the perspective of an aging, widowed grandmother who feels the loss of her children when their education takes them away from their roots. Willa Cather’s One of Ours  won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize: it tells the story of a young man who feels trapped in caring for the family farm, finding escape in his education and finally in war. I also read O Pioneers! about a Swedish immigrant family trying to successfully farm in Nebraska. Both Cather novels have dark endings, but I want to finish the trilogy that is started by O Pioneers! and I’m about a third of the way through Song of the Lark.

ccfStella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm is a hilarious novel about a farm family under the powerful but depressed misrule of an aunt/mother who had once been traumatized by “something nasty in the woodshed.” It had an oddly satisfying appeal to the side of me that just wants to fix people. The most modern novel I read was Some Luck by Jane Smiley. It, too, takes place on a farm, and covers two generations starting just after WWI. I found I better recognized the teenaged sons in this family than in Cather’s or Berry’s books, and I hope she writes another novel with these characters.

I think in these books my Lord was preparing me to deal with my uncle’s passing in June. He left me a sheaf of letters from my grandmother and great grandmother. It was out of such a life that my parents and grandparents came to the West Coast, from rural Iowa. Their letters were filled with the weather and the harvest, and family visits. With  the simultaneous longing for exotic places and pining for home.

ciagobI did have time to finish a few science books with my daughter. We read both Life Itself by Boyce Rensberger and A Meaningful World by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathon Witt. Life Itself covers cell biology, including embryology and biochemistry, while Meaningful World covers chemistry, biochemistry, mathematics and art to make the argument that our world is designed, not a happy accident. While I found their constant grinding on the ax of “materialist reductionism” a bit overworked, I did find that both books together provided a framework for me to consider if and how something as clearly tragic and immoral as abortion can still be a legal choice. Life Itself would not be an enjoyable book for someone who believes in 5 days of creation, or the literal hand of God in the forming of life, but it is nonetheless the most living book on the topic I have seen yet. We also checked out Clouds in a Glass of Beer by Craig Bohren, about atmospheric physics. It was much more challenging than I expected, and I was delighted when the author emailed me to answer our questions.

cbcMissT’s last year of school afforded me the chance to introduce her to my very favorite books from high school: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Till We Have Faces – C.S. Lewis’s retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, and Cry, the Beloved Country – Alan Paton’s moving tale of South Africa. So of course I reread them and of course I recommend them. Also, her graduation gave me permission to indulge in a little fantasy, so I completed Brandon Sanderson’s first (and only) two Stormlight novels The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance. Kings, magic armor and swords, ordinary people gaining magical powers, scary beasties, bad weather, prophecies. You know, everything you like from a fantasy novel. And 1300 pages each.

My two reading goals for 2017 are both books I’m reading with others: St. Augustine’s Confessions and David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility, a treatise on classical education. There has been something of a debate within the Charlotte Mason community as to whether Mason’s method could be considered to fall under the umbrella of a classical education. On one side there are those who see enough similarity, particularly in choice of reading and subject matter, to consider her grounded in classicism. On the other side are those who feel she had come up with something entirely new, with goals and intentions quite different from classical educationalists. This book influenced the creators of Ambleside Online, and I look forward to reading it with that group of women on the Ambleside forum.