Thru the first half of this year.
So many good books, so little time. If you’re a reader, doesn’t that always feel true?
So, today I want to share some of the books I’ve read so far this year, including my favorite, at the end of this post. I hope you’ll Reply with your favorite too, because I’m always looking for the next great read.
I started the year reading The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel. It’s the third book in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell and King Henry VIII.
I loved the first two, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, each of which won the Booker Prize when they were released in 2009 and 2012 respectively. But so much time had passed between the first and second, and this last one, that I had already forgotten some of the “lesser” characters, and found it confusing and difficult. Finally, I just re-read Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, which made The Mirror & The Light much better, a natural conclusion to the series. All three are fantastic, especially if you love English history.
Still, each of the three is very long and very detailed, so I wanted to follow that total immersion in the 16th Century with something totally different.
I decided on Parker Palmer’s book, On The Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old. It’s small but deep. “Every day, I get closer to the brink of everything. We’re all headed that way, of course, even when we’re young, though most of us are too busy with Important Matters to ponder our mortality. But when a serious illness or accident strikes, or someone dear to us dies…it becomes harder to ignore the drop-off that lies just over the edge of our lives.”
Then, it was on to A Low Country Heart by Pat Conroy, a Christmas gift. “Final words and heartfelt remembrances from bestselling author Pat Conroy take center stage in this winning nonfiction collection, supplemented by touching pieces from Conroy’s many friends.” It’s mainly a small collection of personal letters and thoughts, and is a delightful, quick, easy, pleasurable read from one of the best story-tellers of our time.
Next was So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell, an odd little book about our memories of childhood friendships and loss. Literally a 90-minute read.
I am a huge Marilynne Robinson fan so I had pre-ordered Jack. She may be an acquired taste but I’ve loved every book she’s written, especially Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and this new work follows one of that book’s main characters. The Gilead Series, including Jack, are stories of faith and love and the desperation of poverty and loneliness. I loved it. It’s heartbreaking: “…once in a lifetime, maybe, you look at a stranger and see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. And if you love God, every choice is made for you. There is no turning away. You’ve seen the mystery — you’ve seen what life is about. What it’s for. And a soul has no earthly qualities, no history among the things of this world, no guilt or injury or failure. No more than a flame would have. There is nothing to be said about it except that it is a holy human soul. And it is a miracle when you recognize it.“
I had also pre-ordered the newest George Saunders book, A Swim In a Pond In The Rain. Reading it is very like being one of the chosen writers to attend his writing course at Syracuse. Using 7 short stories written by the greatest Russian authors, Saunders magically puts us inside the minds of this brilliance and will forever after leave you able to understand what makes some writers great. “We really feel Marya’s loneliness now. We feel it as our own. We know, if we didn’t before, that loneliness beyond relief is possible, and is all around us, in people showing no outward signs of it, as they go into town, pick up their checks, head quietly home (or stand in line at the post office, or sit in a car at a stoplight, singing with the radio.)” It may seem to you that this equivalent of attending a college course on writing would be more work than pleasure, mostly boring and dull, but, trust me, it is not. It is pure brilliance swimming in empathy and humor about the human condition.
A friend recommended We Begin At The End by Chris Whitaker. It’s a wonderful heart-rending story that will almost certainly have you in tears at the end. Sometimes I found the dialogue, the way he has his characters speak, a bit difficult to follow, but it did not disappoint, and it’s a 5-hour read.
Back to non-fiction with For All The Tea in China by Sarah Rose. It’s a 3-hour read about how the British East India Company stole cuttings and seeds from the very best teas grown in China. The British had been trading opium for tea, but the Chinese Emperor made opium trading and selling illegal. At that time, tea imported by the British East India Company accounted for 10% of the entire British economy, so this created a dire economic threat to Great Britain. I grew up in an English colony (Malaya) and assume that’s where I began my love of tea. It may also explain why I really liked this book. It’s such a great story! You wouldn’t expect an inexperienced British botanist to be this daring.
A family member, a brother-from-another-mother, recommended Last Second in Dallas by Josiah Thompson, about the Kennedy assassination in 1963. If you’re a conspiracy type, you’d probably enjoy it. I wouldn’t read it again.
Another Christmas gift was The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser. l love biographies. This one does not disappoint. Baker was a part of almost every major world-changing event, from the end of Watergate to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Perhaps because we endured such an inefficient government recently, James Baker’s ability to get things done feels remarkable. At the end, I can’t say I really like his politics, but I cannot imagine what America would’ve become without him. And the book made a great read.
My son loaned me The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Doug Preston, about finding a legendary lost city deep in the jungles of Honduras. Oh yeah, and it’s cursed too. Non-fiction, it’s an easy, harrowing read that will make you more appreciative of anthropologists and archaeologists willing to risk their lives to better understand people who lived hundreds of years ago. “We have to wonder why the kings and nobles failed to recognize and solve these seemingly obvious problems undermining their society. Their attention was evidently focused on their short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with each other, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all those activities.” On the other hand, this lost civilization doesn’t sound that different from us today.
I loved Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Series, 4 novels tracing the lives of two little girls as they grow up in the crime and poverty surrounding them in Naples. So I was expecting her new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, still following those two now grown girls, to be as good. I was disappointed.
David Sedaris never, ever disappoints. The Best of Me was the perfect book to lighten me up. Highly recommended.
Then back to China with Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie. It follows the lives of two teenage boys forced to live in remote rural China for re-education during the Cultural Revolution. Their love of books and stories lead them to the little Chinese Seamstress they both end up falling in love with. It’s a short book, and a good story, especially for those of us who lived during these days in China.
I chose another Booker Prize winner next: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. It tells the story of an Australian boy who escapes crushing poverty to become a surgeon just as World War II begins. He ends up a POW of the Japanese, assigned to a group of prisoners forced to work on the construction of the Thai-Burma railroad. If you saw The Bridge Over the River Kwai, every scene in the book will feel real to you. The surgeon struggles to keep his fellow prisoners alive in almost unbelievable circumstances and cruelty. At the same time, he is haunted by his affair with his uncle’s young wife, an affair literally ended when the War began. “A savagely beautiful novel about the many forms of good and evil, of truth and transcendence, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.” It is beautifully written.
One of my most trusted sources of great reads told me that Beach Music by Pat Conroy was perhaps his favorite book all-time, that he had read it twice. It’s a love story: love of place, love of friends, love of lovers. I’m not sure I’d read it twice, but if you can read the final 100 pages without crying, I want to know how. All of Conroy’s books are wonderful. This one was unexpectedly emotional and life-affirming.
Near Death Experience — NDE — is fascinating. It’s a bit like the new government report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena: Something’s happening, but what exactly? In non-fiction, After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal About Life and Beyond by Bruce Greyson left me wishing I could have one. It’s comforting and mysterious.
Yet another Booker Prize winner: Shuggie Bain: A Novel by Douglas Stuart is set in 1980s Glasgow. It’s a heartbreaking story of poverty and love and addiction, beautifully written with compassion that will touch any heart.
And, finally, my very favorite book of the first half of 2021: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. She will transport you to the England of the boy, William Shakespeare, before he has become the world’s most famous wordsmith and playwright. And as she takes you back to his life, she will help you understand what drove the themes of his works, and reveal the deepest pain any parent can feel. I think you will LOVE this book.