[You can find the first part of my 2014 reading review here]
* Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold – This has been sitting on our shelf for years, thanks again to my wife having picked it up at some point. It was a great novel to get lost in, with a little historical fiction thrown in for good measure.
The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks – Not my favorite by Banks (that’s The Darling, followed by Cloudsplitter). Unlike the others I’ve read from him, this is a much smaller story and one less intertwined with the richness of history. I’ll certainly try more Banks in the future, but perhaps stick with later works.
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton – Again, I owe this one to my wife. If you’re noticing a pattern here it’s the result of a few factors: (a) she makes great recommendations; (b) I refuse to read back covers, dust jackets, reviews, etc. for fear of spoiling anything; and (c) we have very full shelves full of possibilities. In this case, my wife noticed the book at a book exchange and thought it would fit well with my African American Literature set. An excellent novel that reminded me how little I really know about South Africa and apartheid and also what a dramatic change we seem to have missed in the United States during the twentieth century in terms of race. Mandela lived while King and Malcolm and Evers and others were assassinated.
* Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – This was big on the “welcome to college” reading lists this fall and again related to my African American Literature reading, so I thought I’d give it a try. If I were recommending one book on contemporary race relations, this would be it. That’s especially the case because of the international perspective (US, UK, and Nigeria), which helps strip away the idea that either we’re the special exception or that this is just the way it has to be. Things absolutely don’t have to be the way they are and Adiche gives us a great dose of that reality. It’s also just a well-crafted and engrossing novel.
The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf – I already loved Haruf and he didn’t disappoint with this one. It’s a slender volume packed with a big story about love and family and mistakes and stubbornness. All, of course, set on the plains of Colorado. If you haven’t read Haruf yet, this would be a fine place to start.
Plainsong by Kent Haruf – Between books I reread this one, Haruf’s most famous. A moving story about the small town of Holt, Colorado and a few really good people (though none of them perfect) who live there beside some really bad (but certainly redeemable) people. Haruf always seems to capture the feelings I’m looking for in my “books about small towns” shelf.
The Dark is Rising Series (The Dark is Rising, Greenwitch, The Grey King, and Silver on the Tree) by Susan Cooper – These are definitely YA fiction but hopefully Harry Potter and the Hunger Games have convinced you that the category doesn’t have to lack depth and imagination. I first read these as a young adult and have occasionally returned to them in the years since. This time I was again impressed with Cooper’s imagination and writing (especially of complex, original prophecy-poems). There’s an original world here and – more than the most authors of such books – a recognition of the real limits on what one person can do themselves, the realization that none of us are entirely free to make our own stories. I wish she was more widely appreciated, though I understand an attempt to make the first book of the series into a movie was a terrible disaster.
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins – I reread this after seeing the Catching Fire movie. Still an excellent book.
Seaward by Susan Cooper – While The Dark is Rising is tightly constructed around this series of prophecy-poems, Seaward is … well, trippy. It’s set in a magical world in which the rules are as obscure to the reader as they are to the protagonists, a girl named Cally and a boy named Westerly. Their pasts are kept similarly obscure, so the book is driven by our shared discovery of this world as they press on toward an unknown destination in the west. But it’s a great journey with some vivid characters along the way (including Peth, one of my favorite Christ figures).
A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin – This summer I finally had time to read the most recent book of the Game of Thrones series. I’d received it for Christmas but knew it would get in the way of my teaching responsibilities if I’d read it earlier. It didn’t disappoint – much stronger than the fourth book since I finally caught up with my many of my favorite characters.
Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet by John G. Turner – This is an excellent biography by a non-Mormon about the second modern prophet of the faith (after Joseph Smith). It was part of the impetus for using Mormonism as a central example when I taught the first half of the US history survey. Between the contentious beginnings in the eastern US and the Utah War just before the Civil War (with polygamy running throughout), Young was present for some of the great religious/political debates of the 19th century US.
Our Search for Happiness by M. Russell Ballard – This was a crucial book for my own spiritual development, which I decided to return to this year. Still a great example of simple teaching that has inspired me beyond the contours of my own faith.
Women at Church by Neylan McBaine – In case you hadn’t heard, there’s a bit of an intense debate about women in the LDS Church right now. Part of this is doctrinal, part is about practice, and the lines between the two are anything but clear. I know many women who are perfectly happy with their place in and relationship to the Church. I know many others who are anything but. And I know plenty of men with a range of opinions and responses to this as well. So I was looking forward to McBaine’s book and would say it didn’t disappoint. Like Ballard’s book, I think its great contribution is in promoting understanding. Though I don’t know McBaine personally, my sense is that she shares my disposition toward moderate reform rather than radical revolution (as attractive as that sometimes seems). So she’s well positioned to serve as a translator between members and leaders, women and men, traditional believers and those who find their relationship with the Church a bit more complicated. I’ve already recommended this book to leaders in my area and went so far as to buy some copies just for lending.
Speaking with the Angel edited by Nick Hornby – I read this between other books back in May and remember thoroughly enjoying the stories. Beyond that, I can’t really remember any details though.
Honorable Mentions (Non-Books)
* “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, June 2014 – Among the most significant things I read this year. Especially in this year of Ferguson, having a clearer view of the background and facing Coates’ idea of what it would take to face up to our history was indispensable to my thinking. If you are at all interested in race in America – past or present – you should be reading his blog at The Atlantic.
aaihs.org – The blog of the African American Intellectual History Society is (for me) the best history blog out there. These are serious scholars who are also passionate about their subjects and not afraid to reflect on how the historical informs the contemporary and vice versa.
On the Docket for 2015
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood (almost done)
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Hild by Nicola Griffith
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson