Reading Year in Retrospect

DSC_1833“I am an inveterate browser of people’s bookshelves, always curious to see what other people have been reading, and which books they choose to display. but I am equally curious about the manner in which they array them. Are their books neatly aligned, like the leatherbound books in the Levenger catalog, or do they teeter on the shelf at odd angles?”  — David Levy in Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital AgeI love looking back at my reading year, and yet I also shrink from the raised eyebrow of my inner critic. Deciding on categories and distributing my titles in those gives the same thrill that I get in organizing my books. This is my reading year in retrospect.

My own Book of the Year? It’s a tie! N.D. Wilson’s Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent was both the slowest and most profound read. I read it aloud to my husband a page or even a paragraph at a time. But reading through Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence was also deeply satisfying. (confession: I have 60 pages to finish)

This Rich & Wondrous Earth Linda Burklin (life in boarding school)
When a Crocodile Eats the SunPeter Godwin (living in Zimbabwe)
The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild Lawrence Anthony (animal conservation)

Over the Gate Miss Read (cozy read)
Lark Rise to Candleford(trilogy) Flora Thompson (a portrait of a culture)
Lady Anna Anthony Trollope (novel of a marriage)
Cousin Henry Anthony Trollope (a study of a guilty conscience)
Tyler’s Row Miss Read (not my favorite Miss Read)

The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith Bruce Marshall (story of a Scottish Priest)
Father Hilary’s HolidayBruce Marshall (priest gets involved in political intrigue)

Death by Living N.D. Wilson (memoir/family heritage/travelogue/random thoughts)
Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community Dietrich Bonhoeffer (crammed with good stuff)
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert Rosaria Butterfield (unusual story)

From Dawn to Decadence Jacques Barzun (500 years of cultural history, EXCELLENT) Scrolling Forward David Levy (e-book or bound book debate, written a decade ago)

Early American
Rip Van Winkle & Other Stories Washington Irving (some classics improve as we age)

Fit to Burst : Abundance, Mayhem, and the Joys of Motherhood Rachel Jancovik (wise)
Real Marriage Mark and Grace Driscoll (yes and no: all the stats got old)

Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed Philip Hallie (5K Jews saved by people of Le Chambon)
The Elegance of the Hedgehog Muriel Barbery (postmodern novel, quotable sections)

First Family: Abigail and John Adams Joseph Ellis (very enjoyable read)

Kid Lit
Anne of Green Gables L.M. Montgomery (priceless)
Anne of Avonlea LMM (sad to lose Matthew Cuthbert)
Anne of the Island LMM (away at school)
Anne of Windy Poplars LMM (winning over the Pringles and Katherine Brooke)
Anne’s House of Dreams LMM (early marriage, bereavement)
Anne of Ingleside LMM (a houseful of kids and dear Susan)
Rainbow Valley LMM (add the Meredith kids to the Blythes: delightful)
Rilla of Ingleside LMM (I love Rilla; more Susan; a great view of WWI at home)
Chronicles of Avonlea LMM (12 short stories, Anne is just a cameo)
Further Chronicles of Avonlea LMM (includes a delicious story of a revival meeting)
The Story Girl LMM (she can make a story reciting the multipication tables)
The Golden Road LMM (a hilarious mistaken identity story)
Kilmeny of the Orchard LMM (a mute girl plays the violin)
Emily of New Moon LMM (appeals to all aspiring writers)
Emily Climbs LMM (word lovers will love Emily)
Emily’s Quest LMM (overcoming obstacles to writing)
The Blythes are Quoted LMM (more short stories)
Charlotte’s Web E.B. White, (classic, test-drove with a grandson)
Island Magic Elizabeth Goudge (Guernsey family, classic Goudge)

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers Maria Augusta Trapp (must read for S o M fans)
God’s Arms Around Us William Moule (heart-pounding tale of family in WW2 Philippines)
Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism Temple Grandin (she translates autism)
The End of Your Life Book Club Will Schwalbe (terminally ill mom and son read books)
A Little Moule History William Moule (life of a vagabond adventurer)
Appetite for Life Noel Riley Fitch (bio of Julia Child)
The Bookseller of Kabul Asne Seierstad (daily life in Afghanistan)
The Alpine Path LMM (frustrating in its brevity)

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie Alan Bradley (I ♥ Flavia de Luce)
Speaking from Among the Bones Alan Bradley (another Flavia book)
Chop Shop Tim Downs (Bug Man is a forensic entomologist)
First the Dead Tim Downs (almost had a heart attack reading this)
Less than Dead Tim Downs (difficulty breathing while reading this thriller)

Twelfth Night W. Shakespeare (mistaken identities)
The Tempest Shakespeare (full fathom five thy father lies)
The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare (TWO sets of identical twins)

Little Black Sheep Ashley Cleveland (the gift of willingness)
Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk Heather Kopp (story of addiction)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot (spellbinding story of HeLa cells)

TV Reading (one-night read without substance)
A Lancaster County Christmas Suzanne Woods Fisher (English stranded with Amish)

Shadow of the Silk Road Colin Thubron (China-Turkey by one of my fave travel writers)
In a Sunburned Country Bill Bryson (winsome writing…mostly)
Stephen Fry in America Stephen Fry (witty, sometimes coarse flyover)
Roads : Driving America’s Great Highways Larry McMurtry (he drives the interstates)

The Whistling Season Ivan Doig (the Wendell Berry of Montana)

What have you been reading?

(This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which allows me to buy perhaps one or two new books a year. But I’m thankful if you decide to buy a book through the links.)

Motherless Daughters


By 1996 I was certain sure I had made peace with grief.  Sorrow was a sealed file with the words RESOLVED stamped on the front.  I had been “moving on”, as they say, for decades.

Suddenly, with the stealth of a B-2 bomber, grief pounced and hijacked me.  While I was held hostage, facing my familiar adversary, I had the sense of confusion and disbelief: This cannot be happening to me.  It seemed surreal, disconnected, in short, unbelievable.

It was in that context of confused ongoing mourning that I first read Motherless Daughters.

My mother-in-law wanted to help; she gave me this book with the hesitant hope that it might give me something she herself couldn’t give.  I planted myself in the small bathroom at 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night and started reading.  By 4:00 a.m. I had finished the book, exhausted, soggy,  numb, and emotionally done-in.

When Hope Edelman wrote about experiences, emotions and situations that I knew firsthand in my soul but had never spoken aloud, it could only be described as cathartic.  Edelman gave me words to articulate the sorrow and, more than anything, helped me to understand the nature of grief.  The first chapter, The Seasons of Grieving, is the best concise summary of grief that I have ever read.

I recently revisited Hope’s narrative.  I was surprised to see statements I’ve been saying so long that I thought they were my very own.  The words of the first chapter are still powerful and continue to resonate in my soul.  Back in 1996, they reassured me that I wasn’t some freak of nature who refused to “get over it.”

Having said that, I found the predominant value of this book much more in its diagnosis than in its therapy.

Quotes to copy:

Like most other families that lose a mother, mine coped as best it could, which meant, essentially, that we avoided all discussion of the loss and pretended to pick up exactly where we’d left off.

“My mother died when I was nineteen,” [Anna] Quindlen wrote. “For a long time, it was all you needed to know about me, a kind of vest-pocket description of my emotional complexion:  ‘Meet you in the lobby in ten minutes–I have long brown hair, am on the short side, have on a red coat, and my mother died when I was nineteen.'”

Ten years ago I was convinced I’d finished mourning my mother.  The truth was, I’d barely begun.

Edelman describes a random incident years after her mother’s death where she is balled up in physical pain, clutching her stomach.  She had thought she had sailed through the five stages of death and moved on.  I had a similar moment when, as if lightening from heaven, I was struck, pierced, skewered, with overwhelming grief.  I thought I was well-adjusted, “normal” and that everything was copacetic.  For no discernable reason (I mean the timing of the episode) I was brought to my knees, in tears, and incapable of articulating anything but deep, deep pain.  I ended up in a seldom-used restroom in our church, gasping for air, howling in anguish.  Someone got my husband and told him to go in and check on me.

Here’s what I’ve learned about grief since then: It’s not linear.  It’s not predictable.  It’s anything but smooth and self-contained.  Someone did us all a grave injustice by first implying that mourning has a distinct beginning, middle, and end.  That’s the stuff of short fiction.  It’s not real life.

Grief goes in cycles, like the seasons, like the moon.  No one is better created to understand this than a woman, whose bodily existence is marked by a monthly rhythm for more than half her life.