book reviews, comics, faith, history, humor, literature, nature, poetry, politics, science

Best Books I Read in 2016

It’s hard to narrow down a year’s worth of reading to a manageable list of the cream of the crop, but I’ll try.  From the books I read in 2016, here are the fifteen books I would most recommend.  First are the top three essential books that I would most enthusiastically recommend to anyone.  The other twelve were also great, and I recommend them heartily, too.  If you want to check out last year’s list, click here.  Like last year, I’m putting them in the order that I read them.  Unlike last year, I’m including longer excerpts from my reviews to give a fuller recommendation.  But if you’d like even more, click on the title of the book for the complete review.  Now to the books!

The Top Three

Evicted (Matthew Desmond)

“an essential book.  Please, please, read it.  Desmond makes the convincing case that there is a serious lack of affordable housing that exacerbates, and is a root cause of, the hardships the poor face.  The book follows the lives of a small number of tenants in Milwaukee and their landlords through their evictions and searches for shelter.  […]  If you have any interest in understanding poverty, please read this book.  It is uniformly excellent.  I can hardly recommend it enough.”

Kindred (Octavia Butler)

“a visceral novel about slavery in America.  It’s 1976, and the narrator Dana, an African American, is somehow transported back to antebellum Maryland where she is confronted with a drowning white child.  She travels back and forth, seemingly at whim, until she realizes that she is connected to the child.  […]  The story takes the jumps in time as a given.  One of the strengths of this device is that it puts our modern sensibilities back into the past so that we can better imagine what life was like for slaves and their owners.  It’s so easy for me as a white person today to think that I would have of course been an abolitionist if I had lived back then.  But what if I had lived in the south where slavery was an institution interwoven into the fabric of everyday life?  What if my own family had owned slaves?  Would I have really held beliefs that would be to the detriment of my own welfare?  It’s a tough question.  The book makes us consider that it was the times that made the person.  In describing the slave owner, Dana says this, “He wasn’t a monster at all.  Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper” (134).  And she describes many monstrous things that he does.  It’s enough to make us weep.”

The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson)

“an essential work of history.  Wilkerson tells the story of the internal migration of millions of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West during the 20th century.  Actually, she focuses her attention on three individuals as representatives of those millions.  […]  Throughout these three stories, Wilkerson weaves in all the appropriate context so that we as readers can see the big picture, too.  It’s really a marvelous narrative history that illuminates so much of the 20th century and today.  I can hardly say enough good about it.  Everyone should read it.”

And all the other great ones

Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)

“It starts with one of the famous lines of literature: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”  From there, we follow Clarissa Dalloway (and other characters) through all the preparations for a party that evening at her residence.  […]  The narration floats and glides from character to character, in and out of minds, seamlessly transitioning from one to the next, like a butterfly flitting here and there.  It can be disorienting, but it is also so fluid.  We get to experience life through so many eyes and minds.  It’s exquisite.”

Our List of Solutions (Carrie Oeding)

“a collection of poetry full of longing and insight and barbecues.  One thing I noticed is that this collection works as a cohesive book and not merely a random selection of poems by one author.  Characters and objects and themes recur throughout the book, filling out the neighborhood feel to the proceedings.”

Sula (Toni Morrison)

“a really great novel.  It tells the story of two friends, Sula and Nel, who grow up in a small, segregated Ohio town.  In brief chapters the story flows as the two girls share life together and then separate when Sula leaves town to live freely.  Nel stays and settles down until the day Sula comes back and shakes things up again.  […]  I began the book worried that it would be too “literary,” which by itself is not a fault and which I often love about books.  I love many difficult literary books.  But I’ve found that it’s harder for me to give those kinds of books the attention and concentration required these last few years now that I have kids.  I’m more easily distracted.  So I loved that I could follow the story in Sula, and it was still a deep and rich book even if not as difficult as I expected.  An impressive achievement.”

The Sixth Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert)

“There have been five major extinction events in Earth’s history, and we are currently living during the sixth.  Previous extinction events have been caused by catastrophes like asteroid impacts.  Not so for the sixth extinction, which we are currently witnessing.  Human behavior, whether greedy or careless, has caused the extinction of untold numbers of species.”

This One Summer (Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki)

“a touching graphic novel about growing up.  It’s the story of Rose, a girl on the cusp of becoming a teenager.  Every summer she and her parents travel to a cabin on a lake for vacation.  The routines are established: swimming in the lake, bonfires on the beach, reading in her room, and playing with Windy, another girl a year or two younger whose family also comes to the lake every summer.  […]  The art is a real strength, too.  At times cartoony, and other times more detailed and realistic, it’s in total harmony with the story.”

Inspiration and Incarnation (Peter Enns)

“I feel like it is a book that was written for me, a book that helps me make sense of the Bible and modern scholarship at a time when I’m full of questions and doubts.  The main thesis of the book is that there is an incarnational analogy between the Bible and Jesus where both are fully divine and fully human.  […]  I would highly recommend this book to any Christian, especially anyone with an evangelical background who finds themselves asking how modern scholarship on the Old Testament can be reconciled with believing that the Bible is still God’s word.”

The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova)

“a thoroughly engrossing literary thriller.  Playing with the historical Vlad the Impaler and Bram Stoker’s character Dracula, the novel follows the investigations of an unnamed narrator, her father, his mentor, and other historians as they try to unravel the mystery of what exactly happened to Dracula and where he is buried.  It all starts when the narrator finds a letter in her father’s library, tucked away in a strange book.  The letter starts, “My dear and unfortunate successor…” and the book is an ancient volume with totally blank pages except for a woodcut image of a dragon at the very center of the book.”

Does Jesus Really Love Me? (Jeff Chu)

“a fascinating series of snapshots of the American church and how it is currently dealing with LGBTQ issues.  Chu spends a year talking to Christians–some gay, some not–all over the country to find out about their experiences.  When I first heard about this book, I thought it was going to be mostly a memoir about Chu’s own life.  While he does give some autobiography, almost the whole book is given over to other people’s stories.  He talks to people with views and experiences all across the spectrum.  What I really appreciated is that Chu allows people to talk and give their opinions, really seeing them as individuals, even when he disagrees with them.  […]  I think any Christian, no matter where they stand on the issue, would profit from hearing the stories of these individuals.”

Thunder & Lightning (Lauren Redniss)

“an extraordinary art book about the science and stories of weather.  Melding her skills as an artist with her ability to present research in an interesting way, Redniss has created a unique and fascinating book.  Chapters range from the history of lighthouses and fog off Cape Spear in Newfoundland to the shipping of ice from New England to warmer climes all over the world to forest fires in Australia and the American West to the science of weather prognostication especially as practiced by the Old Farmer’s Almanac.”

Love Medicine (Louise Erdrich)

“a beautiful novel spanning several generations of two families on and off the reservation in North Dakota.  Through a series of interconnected stories that span at least 50 years, Erdrich introduces the reader to marvelous characters who remain alive long after closing the book.”

The Wordy Shipmates (Sarah Vowell)

“a terrifically fun history lesson on Puritan New England.  While not a historian, Vowell has done the research in primary documents to get the story right.  […]  She loves America and its history, but she’s also willing to looks at its faults and how it has failed to live up to its ideals.  I would highly recommend this take on the Puritans.  It’s made me want to read more on them in a way no other previous encounter in a history textbook has.”

Julio’s Day (Gilbert Hernandez)

“a fascinating look at one man’s life and the life of a century in a graphic novel that is exactly 100 pages long.  Julio himself lives to be 100, born in 1900 and dying in 2000.  The story of the century is also there, but the focus is on Julio and his family and friends.”

I mentioned in my last set of reviews for 2016 that I don’t plan on doing my monthly roundup of mini book reviews anymore. However, I’ll still do a best books of the year feature of the books I liked and would most recommend. I’m already working on that list. I hope I find as many good ones as this year.

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book reviews, comics, history, literature, nature, science

Book Reviews, June 2016

June was a good month of reading.  I read four fantastic and varied books.  I’d recommend all of them highly!  Check them out!

thunder and lightning image

  • Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future by Lauren Redniss is an extraordinary art book about the science and stories of weather.  Melding her skills as an artist with her ability to present research in an interesting way, Redniss has created a unique and fascinating book.  Chapters range from the history of lighthouses and fog off Cape Spear in Newfoundland to the shipping of ice from New England to warmer climes all over the world to forest fires in Australia and the American West to the science of weather prognostication especially as practiced by the Old Farmer’s Almanac.  Redniss does it all: she created her own font for the text.  The prints that accompanied the stories and interviews were made either by copper plate photogravure or photopolymer process.  The art is impressive and draws attention before even reading the words.  It’s hard to categorize a book as beautiful and interesting as this one.  It’s not merely a science book, though it is that, too.  In the chapter on wind, there’s the story of Diana Nyad, an endurance swimmer attempting to swim from Cuba to Florida but needing a period with little wind so the waves wouldn’t be too large.  Interspersed in her story are pages with types of winds or mythology and an interlude on the attempt to introduce wind at Mecca during the hajj when millions of Muslims gather for pilgrimage because the site has been so built up to accommodate all of the visitors and cuts off the natural flow of wind.  It’s a one of a kind book.  I’d highly recommend it.
  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler is a visceral novel about slavery in America.  It’s 1976, and the narrator Dana, an African American, is somehow transported back to antebellum Maryland where she is confronted with a drowning white child.  She travels back and forth, seemingly at whim, until she realizes that she is connected to the child.  It’s dangerous for her when she is in 1800s, even though she is herself not a slave, she has no rights that anyone needs to uphold.  Her education and knowledge of history is a two-edged sword: sometimes she can use it to her advantage and other times it makes the whites of the time, and the slaves too, fearful of her.  While it is a science fiction story because of the time travel element, it doesn’t focus on the particulars of how it is happening.  The story takes the jumps in time as a given.  One of the strengths of this device is that it puts our modern sensibilities back into the past so that we can better imagine what life was like for slaves and their owners.  It’s so easy for me as a white person today to think that I would have of course been an abolitionist if I had lived back then.  But what if I had lived in the south where slavery was an institution interwoven into the fabric of everyday life?  What if my own family had owned slaves?  Would I have really held beliefs that would be to the detriment of my own welfare?  It’s a tough question.  The book makes us consider that it was the times that made the person.  In describing the slave owner, Dana says this, “He wasn’t a monster at all.  Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper” (134).  And she describes many monstrous things that he does.  It’s enough to make us weep.  It’s an extremely powerful book and I highly recommend it.

GalleryComics_V_1920x1080_20141100_Sandman-Overture-deluxe_560c5e1637ae77.26559071

  • The Sandman: Overture, written by Neil Gaiman with art by J.H. Williams III, is a lovely prequel to an essential comics story.  First, let me say, that prequels are tricky and often doomed to fail.  When a story begins in the middle of events, it can be difficult to go back and tell the earlier backstory in a compelling way.  But Gaiman has done it beautifully.  When the original Sandman story began, he is imprisoned by a secret society for 72 years after being weakened by some adventure.  Overture tells the story of that adventure when Morpheus (the embodiment of Dream) travels across the universe in order to save it from destruction that he himself inadvertently caused.  Throughout the story, Gaiman weaves elements and characters from the original story in new and interesting ways that add to the mythos instead of merely explaining origins or anything mundane as that.  I was enjoying the story for the first few issues, happy to be back in the world of Sandman, but I wasn’t astounded either.  But upon finishing it, I can say that Gaiman sticks the landing and elevates the entire story, making it a truly worthy prequel.  Though it takes place chronologically before the main Sandman story, I think it still best to read it afterwards.  This was a deluxe edition, so it included a lot of supplementary material in the back.  Remarkably, I found it pretty illuminating, at least more than I usually do with material like this.  The artist, colorist, and letterer all explain their craft and artistic decision making process in a way that helped me understand better the collaborative process of making a comic.  J.H. Williams III’s artwork in particular is gorgeous and makes the book stunning.  If you like Sandman, definitely check this out.  If you haven’t read the original ten collected volumes of Sandman, get on it!
  • Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich is a beautiful novel spanning several generations of two families on and off the reservation in North Dakota.  Through a series of interconnected stories that span at least 50 years, Erdrich introduces the reader to marvelous characters who remain alive long after closing the book. A few of the stories are told by a third person narrator, but most of them are narrated by the characters themselves, so we get to see how they see events, often the same events from multiple perspectives.  It’s a wonderful way to show the intricate nature of perspective.  One of the voices is Lipsha Morrissey, a young boy taken in by the Kashpaws, possibly his relatives, though the mystery of his ancestry is one that he tries to untangle.  His is a humorous and earnest voice.  He describes another woman who his grandfather had a love affair with: “There was this one time that Lulu Lamartine’s little blue tweety bird, a paraclete, I guess you’d call it, flown up inside her dress and got lost within there” (243).  The unwitting joke is that instead of naming the bird he has used the Greek word  for advocate, usually meaning the Holy Spirit in Christian theology. Earlier in his story, he had described his grandmother’s memory as “like them video games that don’t forget your score.  One reason she remembers so many details about the trouble I gave her in early life is so she can flash back her total when she needs to” (240).  Lipsha is only one of the many fully realized people that we empathize with and come to understand.  Many others love, grieve, connive, cope, and live.  It’s a world of characters that Erdrich returned to for a number of other books, but this is the first.  In fact, it’s her first novel, which is amazing.  It’s such a great book.  I read the 1993 expanded edition, which includes more stories than either the 1984 original or the more recent 2009 revision.  But it’s hard to see how one can go wrong with any version of the book (one of the stories taken out of the 2009 version appears in the backmatter, so it isn’t wholly lost).
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