Oh my! It’s been almost a year since I’ve done a book entry. I guess that would indicate that I’ve either been doing too much reading to keep up, or not enough reading to keep it interesting. It’s sort of a combination of the two. Here’s the standouts from the past year, categorized in a way that seems logical to me:
The Divine Comedy by Dante
In the past I had read selections of Dante’s famous work and I had read Inferno in its entirety, but this was the first time I had read the entire work. The earthiness and physicality of Inferno always makes for entertaining reading…I mean, really, that scene with the guy chewing on the other’s head, it just doesn’t get more revolting than that. What surprised me was how much I enjoyed Purgatory. It seemed to me very relatable to life, if one believes that life is a process by which we are to be conforming ourselves to the image and will of God. There is a graciousness and humanity that I found very appealing. It stood in stark contrast to the brutality of Inferno and reminded me that in life we have the capacity to create our own hells, or choose to strive for lives of truth, beauty, and grace. I truly enjoyed Purgatory and would easily say that it is my favorite of the trio. Paradise was difficult for me. I found it to be unrelateable and confusing. Jumping from planet to planet in a pre-Copernican understanding of the universe was too bizarre for me. While the ending, with its blinding encounter with the love of God is beautiful, the rest of it was just too much for me. What that says about my soul is a matter I’d rather not consider!
Reading Shakespeare again was such a treat. I am embarrassed to admit it had been years since I had sat down with the bard. Maybe the absence made it even better, but I cannot think of another time I’ve more enjoyed my reading. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was reading the two works that are arguably his best comedy and tragedy. The juxtaposition of King Lear and Tempest is so striking. The common themes of premature divestiture, warring brothers, wise fools, natural and social upheaval, all became so much more clear when read together. It was a great reminder to me that while these works were read for one of my classes, there is nothing stopping me from picking up my Complete Works of Shakespeare simply for my own entertainment.
The Republic of Plato adapted by Allan Bloom. I’m still reading through this so it may not be fair to count it as a 2012 read but I’m putting it in here anyway. As I haven’t read any Plato since college it’s felt good to give my brain the workout required by this text. The brilliant use of the Socratic method, the challenging dialogue, the verbal acrobatics, are what make this work so incredibly brilliant and teach you to challenge the assumptions that are so often presented as fact. Bloom’s commentary makes is more accessible and I really appreciate that!
Beowulf in a new verse translation by Seamus Heaney has been a piece I’ve wrestled with and grown to love. Having read it at least two times in the past two years, along with other translations, I would say I’ve become pretty familiar with the work. The more time I spend with Heaney’s translation, the more I enjoy it. I am not a medievalist, an expert in old English, or a scholar of early English works so my opinion is simply that of a reader and I think that Heaney’s version is fantastic!
John Milton’s Paradise Lost was surprising to me. At first I really didn’t like it but the more I read of it the more I understood why this is such an important work. Milton’s use of linguistic styles to separate the chaos of Hell from the order of Heaven and the lies of Satan and the truth of God is brilliant. Scenes in Hell are weighty, confused, written in Baroque language. Scenes in Heaven are light, orderly, written in clear and concise language. The “grandeur” of Satan’s boasts and his posturing is fantastically portrayed and the drama of the Fall is captured as I’ve never seen before. It’s epic in every possible way.
Reading Aristophanes, the father of comedy, is so much fun. He’s earthy to the point of crudeness, hilarious, and utterly human. I didn’t read the entirety of The Complete Plays of Aristophanes by I did read Birds, Clouds, Peace, and Frogs. It was the perfect selection to begin to encapsulate Aristophanes’ worldview as Frogs takes place in the underworld, Birds is a world created between Mount Olympus, home of the gods, and earth, while Peace is the story of one all-too-human hero who makes his way from earth to heaven (on the back of a dung beetle) in order to entreat the gods to end the wars that are ravishing Greece. Each play is unique in its own way and thoroughly entertaining. I would love to be able to time travel back to see the original productions of these works.
I came across Medieval Literature in Translation edited by Charles W. Jones during my research for work. It is an excellent resource for those who want to add a bit of medieval to your reading. It contains excerpts from great works like The Song of Roland and other classics, as well as poems, hymns, songs and ballads, prayers, and letters.
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper was a selection for a book club I’ve recently joined. It was so much fun to read an American classic. I’ve read quite a few recent “classics” from the late 20th century over the past years, but it had been a while since I’d read one of the earlier ones. And it was clear while reading it why this is one. The language, the story line, the slice of American history captured, it all comes together to create a story that tells its readers a bit about what it means to be an American, what ideals guided the formation of this country, what injustices plagued the young nation, and what great moments set her apart. Contemporary readers will probably be annoyed with Cooper’s depiction of women and native Americans, but he reflected the time in which he wrote, and to me, seems improbably fair despite the prejudices of his time.
Joan of Arc by Mark Twain, yes, that Mark Twain is an excellent biography of the famed French maiden who led her country to victory against the English. Twain spent twelve years of his life researching Joan and is said to have considered this his greatest work. It’s fantastic and I highly recommend it!
Martin Luther, A Life by James A. Nestingen was one that I read for work and while I feel like I learned a lot, I don’t think it was all that enjoyable. It’s written in the style of an academic conference paper and so lacks some pep. I basically felt like I was the object of a barrage of facts. I’d give it a “meh”.
I love Annie Dillard’s writings so I was thrilled to discover that she had written an account of her childhood. An American Childhood is a wonderful snapshot of mid 20th century America. It’s not idealized in the fashion that is so common, it’s simply related in Dillard’s smart style. Dillard’s gifts for observation and questioning were clearly traits that emerged early in her life and caused her to see the world differently and it is this fresh perspective that makes this such an interesting read.
Peace Meals, Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories by Anna Badkhen was easily one of the most intriguing reads of the year. And it’s one that I recommend to everyone. It’s fantastic. While reading this I laughed out loud, gasped, cried, and marveled at the strength, grace, ferocity, cruelty, kindness, madness, and love expressed by the people I encountered in its pages. Badkhen, a war correspondent for a US paper, has covered the wars in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, the genocide in Rwanda, and basically every other horrific conflict of the past two decades. Originally from Russia, Badkhen brings a fresh perspective to each of these events and instead of focusing on the politics or the horror that would be so easy to obsess over, she shares the stories of the meals she ate with people she lived with, was embedded with, and who she grew to love. Whether eating with a Palestinian in an Israeli occupied neighborhood, drinking vodka with a Russian general in Afghanistan, or simply cooking a meal for her sons at home in the States, Badkhen shows the role that food plays in drawing people together. Sharing food turns strangers into friends, enemies into allies, it unites us and calls upon the “better angels of our nature.” Maybe it’s because everyone has to eat and everyone enjoys food, it’s universal and it may just remind us that the things we share in common outweigh the things that drive us apart. I’m not sure, but this book is excellent. Get it now and read it!
Ever since reading The Year of Magical Thinking, I’ve admired Joan Didion’s beautiful writing. Blue Nights did not fail to satisfy. In her melodic and haunting way, Didion addresses the challenges of aging and the isolation she feels now that she has lost her entire family (the story of the unexpected death of her husband and only child is chronicled in The Year of Magical Thinking). Didion writes in a reflective manner only possible when one has lived long enough to have developed perspective. She wonders if she loved her daughter enough. She reflects on what it means to be a parent, a wife. This is not uplifting stuff, but I was struck by her brutal honesty, her ability to look back and express regrets most people keep silent. This book affected me in the same way that The Year of Magical Thinking did, it made me sad, it made me want to be more compassionate, and it made me want to focus on those things that make life meaningful.
Another story from an American living in Paris…except this one is good, very good. Adam Gopnik’s thoughts on being a foreigner, raising a child in Paris, and finding parts of his personality that surprise him, is highly enjoyable. It’s written in a style that is almost meditative and I appreciated that Paris to the Moon was thoughtful in a way many other “living in Paris memoirs” are not.
The Kindness of Strangers, Penniless Across America by Mike McIntyre is the story of how one man decided to quit his job, sell his stuff, and trek across America with nothing but the clothes on his back. He was determined to make it from California to the East Coast relying entirely on people he had never met before to provide food, transport, shelter, and companionship. Very entertaining, this book provides a nice snapshot of average America with all its strengths, weaknesses, kindnesses, cruelties, and quirks. I think that McIntyre was wise to avoid south Florida, as any adventure here would have probably changed his book title to something like There is No Hope for This Place.
This book has proven to be unsurprisingly controversial in American Evangelical circles, but I enjoyed it. A Year of Biblical Womanhood is Rachel Held Evans’ attempt to understand exactly what the bible says about what it means to be a woman. For one year she concentrates on a characteristic or aspect of womanhood (ex. submission, purity, silence) and takes a very literal approach to exploring it. For example she “praises her husband at the city gates” by standing at the entrance to her town with a sign that says something like “Dan is Awesome”. She also camps in her front yard during her period to more fully understand the Levitical purity laws, and she spend a month being silent in church and wearing a head covering. At first I was a bit put off by Evan’s perspective and style. It all seemed a bit reactive but as the book progressed I saw an increasing thoughtfulness in her perspective. She explores the Jewish roots of many of the aspects of Christianity, she reads the church fathers, studies the writings of the Contemplatives, spends three days in silence in a monastery. Each of these experiences and explorations expands her understanding of what the bible says about womanhood and helps her to see that what many take as “biblical womanhood” today is far too narrow and restrictive. I came to appreciate this book and its author for her heartfelt questioning and exploration of a topic that has been monopolized by the ultra-Conservative for far too long.
When my sister, a close friend, and my dad recommended this, I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer. Peace Like a River is a moving, beautiful, and heart-wrenching story of a motherless family, a miracle-working father, and a son whose role is that of a witness to the wonder of it all. One of my favorites from this past year.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov relates the fantastical story of the Devil visiting Moscow. Hailed as a 20th century classic, this book was written in Soviet Russia and is said to be the most accurate portrayal of life under communism. It’s funny, strange, dark, twisted, and bizarre. The heroes are Satan, the Master, Margarita, and an odd bumbling Jesus. Easily on of the most bizarre books I’ve ever read. Pontius Pilate even makes a couple of appearances as a migraine-wracked responsibility-weary philosopher.
I saved this one for last because it was easily the most disappointing read of the year. Helprin has long been one of my favorite living authors and I loved his brilliantly funny Freddy and Fredericka. So, I had high expectations for Mark Helprin’s latest novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow. And it started off with these delicious lines:
“If a New York doorman is not contemplative by nature, he becomes so as he stands all day dressed like an Albanian general and doing mostly nothing. What little contact he has with the residents and visitors who pass by is so fleeting it emphasizes the silence and inactivity that is his portion and that he must learn to love. There is an echo to people’s passing, a weak int he air that says more about them than can be said in speech, a fragile signal that doormen learn to read as if everyone who disappears into the turbulence of the city is on a journey to the land of the dead.”
I thought those lines were positively pregnant with promise…and for 705 pages I kept looking for a meaty story to come forth. And it never did. So sad.
So there is a selection of the books I read this year. There were a few more, The Mockingjay (enjoyed the entire Hunger Games trilogy for its easy breezy-ness, as well as books on traditional eating, the American food and agricultural systems, some books on education and educational theory) but those are all boring and I wouldn’t want to add anything more to this entry that is already far too long. I would love to hear from you now! I’m putting together a list of books for next year, starting with When I Was Young I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson. I’ve already started it and it’s fantastic. There’s a whole pile on my bedside table waiting to open worlds to me, and I would love to add some of your favorites.