I used to be (perhaps I did this three times?) in the habit of making monthly “what I’m into” posts — books, television, music, etc. It was a clever idea, and one I didn’t keep up. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my reading habits, and I figured I’d share some of the best books I’ve read in the past year.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead : I read this early in 2017. It was a very challenging book, with many depictions of violence and suffering (as is appropriate for a book about slavery). The ‘magical realism’ element of the literal underground was cleverly done, I thought, and something about Whitehead’s writing of the protagonist, Cora, pushed me to really think about how I relate to characters in novels. The plot reminds one of the ways that the past returns even when we might think we are safe.
The Girl with the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf : This novel, about a young Muslim woman in Indiana, was captivating. I didn’t realize when I got it out from the library that it took place in Indianapolis and Bloomington, but the many location references, which were familiar to me, helped ground the book and added a level of interest.
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King : I downloaded the first four of the many mysteries in this series onto my Kindle and read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice while in California to be with my beloved grandmother as she died, and then as I helped plan her funeral. It was highly enjoyable escapism, and although I still haven’t read the next three in the series, I am looking forward to them. I haven’t read a lot of mystery books, but I have read the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and Laurie King writes about a young woman apprenticed to Holmes. If you’re looking for something diverting that still feels intelligent and rich, this is definitely a good series to try.
The Emigrants Series by Vilhelm Moberg : When David and I were visiting his distant relatives in Sweden, this book series came up over and over. It seemed like everyone in Sweden had read these books, and they all insisted that I ought to read them. So, I dutifully downloaded the four-book saga to my Kindle and began to read. The Emigrants is about a Swedish family that travels to the United States in the 1850s to escape the famine and poverty in Sweden (more than a quarter of the population of Sweden emigrated in the 1850s – 1950s. The population of the country has still not recovered from this mass exodus). The books were written in the 1940s and 50s, and I was completely drawn in. They were pretty strange at times — there are a lot of stories within the story, some of which are quite bizarre — but I was deeply fond of the characters, specifically Kristina, the mother of the family that emigrates. The books follow them from childhood until the end of their lives, and I cried a lot as I finished the final book.
Amazing Grace : A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris : I read Mere Christianity by C.S.Lewis while David and I were in Oxford, and I was really disappointed with it. I thought Lewis wasn’t particularly clever and felt distanced from him by his sexism. I’ve loved some of his other work (I love the Narnia series, and I really enjoyed an essay collection of his as well as The Screwtape Letters), but I’d had high hopes for Mere Christianity. After I finished it, I asked for recommendations on a Facebook group I belong to : intelligent yet readable theology, from a woman. And boy, did this book hit the spot. Norris is articulate and thoughtful, but never conceited or obnoxious in her writing. I share a lot of her thoughts and was convinced by her arguments in favor of seeking meaning within the religion of your own ancestors. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work, and if you are a progressive, feminist Christian struggling to reconcile your modern views and the ancient, often “problematic” religion of your ancestors : check this out.
Stasiland by Anna Funder : My mother traveled in Germany and Eastern Europe last spring as a chaperone for a school trip and read this book while there. I borrowed it from her after David and I returned from Europe and it was fascinating. I never felt like I knew very much about East Germany and the Stasi, but Funder’s journalist eye provides facts and good stories within the context of her own story of living in East Berlin shortly after the fall of the wall. (If you read this book, pair it with the film Goodbye Lenin, a really excellent German film which, unlike most German films, had East Germans involved in production and shows a different “side” of East Germany).
Victoria The Queen by Julia Baird : I was interested in Queen Victoria after watching the first season of the PBS Masterpiece Theatre show, Victoria, and picked up this massive paperback when I saw it at Costco. I read it all fall and into the winter, finishing on December 31st. It’s magnificent! Baird is a journalist but also has a PhD in history, so she has the perfect blend of rigorous research and historical knowledge with captivating and intriguing writing style. I learned so much about Queen Victoria and also British history, Europe, and the industrial revolution. She really was a magnificent queen, and some of the popular imagination of her — that she disliked her children and was largely not involved in the politics of her country — are clearly disproven by Dr.Baird’s research.
The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh by Kathryn Aalto : My dear friend Lindsey gave this to me as a birthday gift. I love Winnie-the-Pooh, I loved the film Goodbye Christopher Robin, and I loved the tiny bit of hiking that David and I got to do in Southern England, so this was a perfect gift. I learned a lot about Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A.Milne, and Ashdown Forest (the “real” Hundred Acre Wood). It’s also just a beautiful book to look at — lots of photographs, clever page design, and handsome red cloth covers.
One exciting element of reading Victoria The Queen was realizing that I actually can read history books. I find history very interesting but have often felt intimidated by history books — and quite honestly, a lot of history books seem very dry and dull to me. However, after I finished this massive biography, it occurred to me that there must be a lot of other well-written, interesting books on history. I asked around and am now reading To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild, which is about World War One, and finding it absolutely fascinating and quite engaging. It’s pretty exciting to feel like I have a “new genre” to explore.
What are your favorite books about history? Any I should add to my to-read list? 🙂