Year-End Reading & Gift Suggestions
Special Note: See you next year
and hope you will enjoy at least one of these literary selections.
Regardless of which holidays you celebrate, year-end is often a time for book-gifts. It’s been a while since I’ve made suggestions (or warnings) on books I’ve recently devoured. At this time of year, I try to find a few laid-back reading-stretches for relaxation, unless I’m still searching for the gift ideas. Further, if you (like me) are still foregoing holiday activities due to Covid – enjoying a book is always consolation (or at least some).
The previous two times I posted personal picks (in 2018 and early 2020), I explained my mental health and life motives for reading (relaxation, escape, vicarious living, learning and sharing). You may have purposes of your own. My friend, Kent, who lost his life-long partner this year, said that books are one of the only safe harbors for him. Yes, we all have our own aims.
I don’t stick to one genre. I’ll read almost anything, as long as it isn’t categorized as “Romance” in the Dewey Decimal system (please forgive me if you are a Romance fan). Not all of my suggestions are on the best seller list, nor are they necessarily new titles. You might find them in the used-book bin. I haven’t included articles (myriad as they are), nor truly ‘junk’ novels, which I have pretty-much managed to avoid this year. Good for me. As usual, not all my selections are fun get-a-ways. Still, serious novels or non-fiction often leave us with more to contemplate and talk about than those escape successes.
I prepared my list before starting to write this introduction, then remembered one book that I read based on an OLLI class I took. That was the 2020 Best American Short Stories. I would suggest it as well, for several reasons, most importantly is that there HAS to be one in the collection that speaks to you – and the others can be quickly jettisoned from your consciousness (well, maybe not).
If you are in a book club, virtual or not, you may already be overwhelmed with suggestions. However, sometimes even our book clubs get caught in a rut; my list may add optional variety.
Places to Order Your Books
I love a near-by book shop, Bloomsbury Books Ashland Oregon (bloomsburyashland.com), and hope that all of you have access to a wonderful independent book store that has made it through the industry crisis, as well as that of Covid. Since I assume all of you are familiar with ordering on Amazon; I don’t wish to promote them more. But if you wish to order books online, other than at THE massive big-guy, here are some other locations.
Check your Independent book store first, they will usually order books for you. After that, try:
American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard (2011). This is my #1 suggestion. It’s not the newest, but an important book to read. I hope (and assume) that my friends interested in politics have read it. The subtitle hints at the obvious contention and competition among the different regions of our fractured continent, divided by religion, ethnographic backgrounds, customs and cultures at odds with the others. Woodard rejects the simple ‘red state-blue state’ myth and argues that the rivalries do not abide by state lines or international borders.
I have read complaints about the book (from regular readers, not usually reviewers) that some of his historical conclusions (which range from pre-American Revolution through the centuries and until today) are not accurate. But generally, those complaints appear to be a scenario of not wanting to admit the history; or preferring to believe a type of 1984 Orwellian-rewrite. Don’t get me wrong, there is something for everyone to dislike in this book, like catching a glimpse of your own facial lines in the bathroom mirror.
While not chocked-full of solutions for current day polarization in the US, it presents an incredible historical background of how and why we echo our roots. It demonstrates why it’s so difficult to keep our actions, beliefs and individual states “united.” Not a light book perhaps, but I highly recommend this as a resource to turn to mentally when you find yourself shaking your head over nightly-news, or any news from the “other side” (whatever that side is). Our many identities that challenge the question ‘whose country is it’ have not only molded the continent – and particularly the US – but continue to shape our hostilities and our future.
Before and After: The Incredible Real-Life Stories of Orphans who Survived the Tennessee Children’s Home Society by Lisa Wingate and Judy Christie (2019). This is a rare non-fiction book, noteworthy because it follows-up on the effects and aftermath of the fictional sister-novel “Before We Were Yours.” The newer book tracks the stories of real-life survivors of a black-market, baby-selling scheme; survivors who reached out to the author following the fictional account.
The lucrative scandal in the early and mid-1900s, was perpetrated by the Tennessee Children’s home and one infamous Georgia Tann, who stole over 5,000 children from poor families and ‘supplied’ them to wealthy, eager parents. This book accounts many stories of these now-very-grown children as they learn new details about themselves, discover lost brothers and sisters, as well as the shocking ways in which adoptees were separated from their first (birth) families. I highly suggest reading the novel first – as did the people who are documented in this book. It may give you insight into the pain and ever-lingering emptiness many adult adoptees feel.
Becoming by Michelle Obama (2019). Becoming is an up-front look into the back stories of two important American political figures. Carefully crafted for sure, but fans of Michelle (and Barack) Obama will find the personal behind-the-scenes accounts revealing, and shape your understanding of the couple more clearly. While I felt the book contrived at times, it is noteworthy for warm, humorous, candid and human stories of the Obama-family sagas. There are questions of deep introspection and statements such as “Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.” And at other times, truly inspirational words rouse action and motivation, like “Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?” As the first African American to serve our country as First Lady, she recounts and creates a view never captured by the media. From her childhood in South Chicago, legal education, working years while balancing motherhood, and entering the White House (perhaps reluctantly), she shares ups and downs, triumphs and disappointments. [BTW, Michelle Obama has a podcast: The Michelle Obama Podcast on Apple Podcasts – Spotify studios.]
“Becoming is never giving up on the idea that
there’s more growing to be done.”
— Michelle Obama
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (2020). I have no doubt that many of my socially-conscious friends have read this historic, and current, account of real people in various layers of social ranking throughout our history. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her work The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson tackles the birth of inequality in America. She rejects the tendency to explain slavery as a “sad, dark chapter” in America when in fact it remains with us hundreds of years later, as our own caste system. While one’s first reaction might be to think “Oh, that’s an over-statement, we have no caste system in the US; it’s against our ingrained principles,” the author may sway you otherwise. Not just a system of lands far-away, she describes:
“Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges,
resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone
on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.”
Empathic to other peoples, she explores caste systems that have existed in other places (like Nazi Germany) or toward other groups, like Asians, Latinos, and indigenous, First People. I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that this should be ‘required reading’ for everyone in the nation (despite their political tendencies) to help address what divides and polarizes us as a nation. The Minneapolis Star Tribune called it “magisterial” and the Washington Post (Bilal Qureshi) said “Her epilogue feels like a prayer for a country in pain, offering new directions through prophetic language.” About the author/journalist, Larence O’Donnel wrote that “Isabel Wilkerson has traveled the world to study the caste system and has returned to show us more clearly than ever before how “caste” is permanently embedded in the foundation and unseen structural beams of this old house called America.” Her own words may describe the importance of the speculative theory best:
“Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred,
it is not necessarily personal.
It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations,
patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long
that it looks like the natural order of things.”
The 4 Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too) by Gretchen Rubin (2017). If you are the type that likes to analyze yourself and others, or are a fan of the Enneagram personality tests, you may appreciate this simple exploration. The theory is that most of us have combinations, but only 1 (one) major temperament type. You may surprise yourself when you pick where you belong; I did. Are you an Upholder – Obliger – Questioner – Rebel? Don’t assume you can guess correctly based merely on the labels. The two key points are having only one primary personality type, and that the tendencies are based on EXPECTATIONS you have for yourself, life and others.
Rubin developed a tool not so much for changing yourself as changing your understanding of yourself, helping to reach career, personal or family goals more quickly. Once you understand these four types, even if you don’t believe there are only four, you’ll identify them everywhere. A good friend who I am not naming, and who is clearly a Rebel, often has expectations that clash with others, even those she cares about. This system explains her cantankerousness that can crop up without warning.
In the book, Rubin doesn’t just designate the categories, but offers tips on how to communicate and deal with them (and how you might deal with yourself kindlier). Despite the fact that you (as I) would probably want to declare we are a half-n-half variety, with a bit of reflection you will probably be able to pick out your primary tendency. (Remember, the author insists.) And if you’re unsure, friends seem more-than-willing to make the proclamation for you. It might not have the complexity or sophistication of some personality tests, but it’s fun, simple and more lasting than I expected.
Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas (2018). Unfortunately, I lost the envelope with my scribbled notes for this book, and I had plenty, along with great quotations that I had hoped to use for other purposes. So, in part, I will borrow from some better reviewers than myself.
Generally, when I am speaking about ‘Winner-Take-All’ (WTA), I am talking about election processes and the problems they present. Here, the author introduces a matter just as big – or bigger. This New York Times best seller has one theme that even without my personal jotted transcripts, I remember: the bipolar behavior of the Philanthropy industry. Win-win isn’t always so winning an approach. Whether for ‘world-good’ or not, the goals of “global elite” (whether Republican, Democrat, far-right, far-left or anything in between) to be “change agents” is accompanied by myriad benefits and accolades for them.
As I am a member of non-profit groups, I know that the goodness (and money) (and money) (and oh yes, money) from the rich and corporations is needed and counted on by the rest of us. Only by strong conviction, does it not alter or sway critical thinking. Giridharadas (an ‘insider’ himself) suggests perhaps those with money could do better by shedding dubious business processes and working toward a level playing field of the game. It makes me wonder about all those ‘social sector’ funds many of us gravitated toward.
From the publisher:
“Giridharadas asks hard questions: Why, for example, should our gravest problems be solved by the unelected upper crust instead of the public institutions it erodes by lobbying and dodging taxes? He also points toward an answer: Rather than rely on scraps from the winners, we must take on the grueling democratic work of building more robust, egalitarian institutions and truly changing the world. A call to action for elites and everyday citizens alike.”
From NPR, Jessica Smith, Editorial producer:
“[Anand Giridharadas] zeros in on what he sees as a glaring hypocrisy among affluent elites: that while many well-meaning (and well-off) Americans claim to want to improve society’s inequalities, they don’t challenge the structures that preserve that inequality, not wanting to jeopardize their own privileged positions.”
From Michael J. Sandel, author of What Money Can’t Buy; The Moral Limits of Markets:
“… Giridharadas shows how the winners of global capitalism seek to help the losers, but without disturbing the market-friendly arrangements that keep the winners on top. He gives us an incisive critique of corporate-sponsored charities that promote frictionless ‘win-win’ solutions to the world’s problems but disdain the hard, contentious work of democratic politics…”
The Testaments: Sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (2019). As an Atwood fan, I ask “what could it be other than great?” The Handmaid’s Tale left us perplexed as the ‘Eye’ security van door slammed shut with Offred wondering, as much as we were, if her future held prison, torture, death or freedom. The sequel picks up 15 years after that door shut on Offred’s life; now we learn about the history and future of Gilead, and some of our long-awaited questions are answered.
Different points of view, from three female narrators, offer vastly dissimilar beliefs, lives and possible prospects. Perhaps most interesting of them is “Aunt Lydia,” who any Handmaid fan knows all too well. [The audio book of the Testaments is partially narrated by the Actress, Ann Dowd, who plays the vicious Aunt Lydia from the TV series.] Moreover, we also meet Agnes, growing up in the elite class of Gilead and see the re-entrance of “Baby Nicole,” who has become a major symbol of resistance and hope in Gilead. Spending time with Daisy in Canada offers a bit of relief, at least for a time. Striking a chord with current concerns, The Testaments explains the slide from a US democracy into an autocratic, religious, oligarch, and the inside operations of its management, intimidation, violence and mind-control of those left to serve the ones in power, while the outside world looks on.
“A fast, immersive narrative that’s as propulsive as it is melodramatic.”
— New York Times
The Testaments is worth a second read. It has won many awards and the “Goodreads Choice Awards” of 2019 voted it Best Fiction novel by a margin of over 50,000 votes.
The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018). As a tree lover, I wish I could say this novel was more fiction than not; but sadly, it borders on dystopian realism. The premise and painful situations are all too real for the country’s old-growth trees. This winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the National Book Award and a New York Times best-seller, the epic Overstory branches out and explores the concentric life-rings of nine Americas who by design or destiny are brought together to address the catastrophic destruction of the understory of these tree-creatures.
One of the nine is Patricia Westerford, based heavily on the inspirational work of real-life Canadian scientist, Suzanne Simard, professor of Forest and Conservation Sciences at the University of British Columbia, and alumni of Oregon State University. Simard has her own (nonfiction) book out entitled, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest (2021). Through these characters, like Patricia as well as a Vietnam vet, an artist, college student, an AI videogame designer with mounting disabilities, a corporate executive and others, the author explores the inter-connectiveness of trees. By way of this fictional vehicle, we learn the risks we currently face in real life of losing many of these old-growth characters; and why they’re valuable.
I have read that Powers was inspired when he first laid eyes on the giant Redwoods of California. In September 2021, according to a California station, one fire singularly burned 100 giants in a grove in Sequoia National Forest, a place I visited the year before. More shocking is that in the past two years wildfires in that area have killed “a minimum of nearly 10,000 giant sequoia trees.” The author’s fear in the story, based more on the timber industry, clearly has a fight on multiple fronts.
The Overstory may seem mystical rather than factual, but the interconnectedness of the vast, slow-Moving but majestical and primordial understory world, almost invisible to us, is the source of more scientific data regularly. Whether or not “tree hugger” is an insult that has ever been lodged at you, this book will touch both heart and head. About the Overstory, Bill McKibben (world renown environmentalist) writes:
It’s not just a completely absorbing, even overwhelming book;
it’s a kind of breakthrough in the ways we think about and understand the world around us,
at a moment when that is desperately needed.”
― Bill McKibben
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (2008). Historical Fiction. By mistake, I read this book twice. Okay, so I figured that out a short way into the second reading, but still didn’t put it down. Brooks is also the author of two other books I like every bit as well: March (2006), a ‘sequel’ to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women following the often-absent father, and Caleb’s Crossing (2011). While all the books are historical fiction, that’s probably where the similarities end.
Australian protagonist, Hanna, a rare-book expert and restorer finds herself in the middle of intrigue, love and danger in 1990s, post-Bosnian war, Sarajevo. She is offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join others to protect, save and repair the (real) historic Sarajevo Haggadah (still extant), the oldest surviving Jewish text that is illustrated. The story lines weave in and out of ‘present’ day (90s) and historical European events.
Ironically, rescued by a Muslim, risking his own life to protect it from Nazis during WWII, the volume becomes a symbol of struggle and serves as a pawn in a game of chess as anti-Semitism rises in eastern European cities. An epic and ambitious book, and evidently, I believe it is worth a first read since I read it twice.
Drive by James Sallis (2011). How this book got in my ‘library’ I am uncertain. And why I continued to read it surprises me more. But there is something here for those who enjoy circumspect characters. I was driven (pun intended) to turn the fast-paced pages. Many cite the first paragraph as an example of why the reader needs to travel on:
“Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake. Later still, of course, there’d be no doubt. But for now Driver is, as they say, in the moment. And the moment includes this blood lapping toward him, the pressure of dawn’s late light at windows and door, traffic sounds from the interstate nearby, the sound of someone weeping in the next room…”
While I have not read Sallis before, I have read that the convoluted neo-noir short book, which takes place in Arizona and Los Angles, will not disappoint the author’s fans. Cars play a minor role for those interested, and “Pulp Fiction” fans might be drawn into the oddities. Similarly, Drive was also made into a movie, starring Ryan Gosling. Volatile, expected and unexpected characteristics pop-up, painting a picture of this young stunt diver (stunt driver by day and other things by night). We learn his one theme, “I drive. That’s what I do. All I do.” Like most literary lives, small decisions easily change what drives him on – for ill or not.
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd (2020). This is historical fiction that explores the premise of ‘what if Jesus married?’ (It’s not seeking an academic historic truth, but is simply a radical imagining.) The book explores their meeting and the contemporary ceremony which bound Jesus to a wealthy, disgraced local girl, Ana. I must start by saying that two words come to mind, and I’ve heard them many times in reference to this book – research and respect.
The research, while usually applauded and strongly acclaimed, is often criticized by traditionally religious people. Yet even the Christian Science Monitor states “Kidd’s research into first-century Jewish life, along with her vivid descriptions of the villages and terrain, make Ana’s story come alive.”
Sue Monk Kidd, the author of Secret Life of Bees, and The Invention of Wings, is reverential toward Jesus of Nazareth and his marriage to Ana, which is long before his familiar years of public ministry. She weaves in other family names we know, like Jesus’ brothers, James and Simon, mother Mary, as well as Ana’s adopted brother, Judas (charismatic before his fall). The book demonstrates a Jesus of great humanity and a champion for women and down-trodden. Yet, the story of the life between them (loving, intelligent but sadly short and pathetic) is not the majority of the book, although Jesus is always in the background and on Ana’s mind. This is more a story about women.
Ana, the rebellious, artistic and ambitious, daring seeker (when women of the time were not to ‘seek’ in any way), is molded not just by her love and life with Jesus, but by Aunt Yaltha, her friend Tabitha, and the wife of Herod Antipas. In a society dominated by male supremacy, women are property with dictates – how they must live, where they must live, or marry, what they can or cannot do, even if they can live. Quietly the women fight against cultural norms and find strength in each other through their many journeys. (If you liked the Red Tent, I suspect you will like the Book of Longings.) The book can leave you believing a scenario of Jesus marrying and without it being blasphemy, but that’s not the point. The aim is to show strong women being able to “realize the largeness in themselves.” And it hits the mark.
The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce (2018). “Vinyl only” – that describes Frank’s jammed-pack UK record shop. He is a bit of a music savant, who is desperately trying to protect (and sell) “vinyl only” in the 70s and 80s, despite the take-over of cassettes and CDs. The nostalgia of the product and neighborhood history are shared by Frank’s quirky friends; Kit, Maud and Father Anthony (as a spoiler, Father Anthony does not turn out to be a pedophile – don’t go there). Yet even among his friends, Frank is a lonely shop keeper, who others turn to for help. Things change when the mysterious Ilse Brauchmann, in her ultimately-infamous pea-green coat and gloves, comes into his life. She asks him to teach her about music, as he always knows what to select for people (specific pieces of jazz, classical, punk, or pop); but she isn’t what she seems. And neither is the novel.
My friend Kent recommended this book to me due to its music therapy themes; me once being a music therapist. The Music Shop is mystery, love and bittersweet memories, but it’s not a romance novel (I swear it).
Joyce is the author of the bestseller and much acclaimed, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (which I would call ‘quirky‘). Both books deal with loss, disappointments in life and the bravery it takes to face them.
I can’t say if it is great literature, but while not a romance novel, it is romantic. While not a music thesis, it is lyrical and while not a psychological drama offers the mysteries of life and second chances we do or don’t take.
“The silence at the beginning of a piece of music
is always different from the silence at the end.’’
Red at the Bone by Jaqueline Woodson (2020). This New York Times best seller, acquaints us with two black families and an unexpected pregnancy as the background to explore race, gender, education, class and status, mother/daughter relationships, queer-ness, gentrification and other contemporary themes.
My Oregon county, like many, has a one-book or one-read program. (For your area, see Read.gov: One Book programs & state and local book festivals). Red in the Bone was the adult selection last year. Woodson’s short, but tender and inviting, story follows the lineage of three generations — their hopes, dreams, struggles, and efforts to escape the pull of history into grievances as well as the tolls they’ve paid along the way.
In 2001, we meet Melody, a sixteen-year-old going through a right-of-passage her mother never managed, (despite her own mother’s wishes). We reach back to learn diverging points of decisions and upheaval for the families (like the Tulsa race massacre in 1921), which the publisher says shows “how they all arrived at this moment.” As with many families, internal struggles have copious secrets and many layers of emotion.
As I finish this, I’m thinking “hmmmm, so much for some quick thoughts on gift-book recommendations.” Ah, well. I know you’ll pick and choose with careful consideration of time and interest what book to read, or share with others. Notice that once again, I offered no virology – it’s still too soon. Remember that reading is most times enjoyable, a boost for our spirit and in the mix for quality aging.
Good end-of-year to all,