Trying Something New: Reading List 2018


I love to read, always have.

As a girl I plowed through all of Louisa May Alcott’s novels and anything by L.M. Montgomery.  I devoured biographies of Clara Barton, Marie Curie, and George Washington Carver. I read everything on my shelf, on my older brother’s shelf, and on the acres of white wooden shelves that lined a wall in our home.

pile of books in shallow focus photography
Thanks to borrowing limits, my childhood bedroom did NOT look like this.

I checked out stacks of books from the school, public, and church libraries, and from the university where my father taught. And I used any spare moment to read.

I read the daily comics in the paper after breakfast. I read as soon as my schoolwork was finished, at night with a nightlight, in the bath, and even at the dinner table when I could get away with it.

Sometime around second grade, I developed a taste for mysteries. My brothers’ Hardy Boys books led me to  Nancy Drew. Then I discovered Trixie Belden, moved to Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes, then Wilkie Collins, Dorothy Sayers, and so on. These were the books I turned to for relaxed reading during summertime. Outside of assigned school reading, I didn’t read in any other genre.

Then, Life Happened

In the decade after college, I had five kids and my reading took a back seat. I did read a lot of quality picture books — and reread them approximately 1,234 times. As my children grew older, I revisited classics from my childhood like Black Beauty, Little House on the Prairie, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Any spare reading time was given completely to my old favorite: mysteries.

After a few years of this literary diet, my brain began to feel a little flabby, so every now and then I varied the genres I chose, and threw in some meatier options. A friend mentioned Outliers on social media so I read it and several other books by Malcom Gladwell. I reread Anna Karenina. (It was even better the second time around.) I branched out — and enjoyed doing so — but I still wasn’t fully satisfied by my reading.

The diversity was nice, but the choices were haphazard. If a title caught my attention, I would add it to my bedside pile. Otherwise, I fell back on old, easy favorites.


“I knew that varied and frequent reading nourishes good writing, so I wanted to read more widely, but it just wasn’t happening.”


I always had a vague mental list of books I wanted to read: books that were well-reviewed in various publications; books that friends recommended; books mentioned during an interesting radio interview. I would read a few each year, but always suspected that I could find time for more. And I knew that varied, and frequent reading nourishes good writing so I wanted to read more widely, but it just wasn’t happening. My habits weren’t leading me to the kind of reading I desired.

Making a Reading List

So, this year I decided to be more intentional about my reading choices. Instead of reading whatever title came to mind when I was ready to start a new book, I made a list of books I’d like to finish before the year ends. I divided the list into fiction, non-fiction, poetry, books related to writing, and books related to my practice of Christian spiritual disciplines.

I chose some books because I’ve wanted to read them for a long time. Others I had never heard of before I sat down to compile my list. My selections are influenced by my personal taste, what my older children are reading for school, Pulitzer lists, and friends’ recommendations.

Fiction Reading List: Classics, Contemporary, and Middle Grade

The fiction selections are a mix of classical (Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; Macbeth by Shakespeare) and contemporary (Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson; An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro.) And, because I’m currently writing a middle-grade novel and I read aloud with three grade-school-aged children, there are several middle-grade books on the fiction list as well, including The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, and a biography of E.B. White.

Nonfiction Reading List: Biography, Criticism, and Poetry

A couple of my nonfiction selections are Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah Moore, Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, by Karen Swallow Prior. My poetry list includes collections by Gwendolyn Brooks, Malcom Guite, and Li-Young Lee. DIY MFA, by Gabriela Pereira and On Writing Well, by William Zissner are two of the books I chose to move me forward as a writer.

Finally, I’ve selected several books and chapters from the Bible for personal study and reflection. In all, I’ve assigned myself over thirty books to read.

Will I finish my list before January 1, 2019?

I’m not sure it matters. But I do know this: steady, deliberate effort accomplishes far more than the slapdash approach I’ve taken in the past.

Anyway, finishing a list isn’t my goal.

I want a new habit of intentional reading.

I want a reading habit that will stimulate my thinking and feed my writing. Consistently working my way through this list will get me there whether I actually read every book or not.

 

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Do you have a personal reading list?  If it’s online, please leave a link in the comments. I’d love to take a look at it!

Want to see my full list?
2018 Reading List
Or you can use the 2018 Reading List menu tab at the top of my Home Page. (I’ll update the list as I finish each book.)

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Book List 2018: April Update

As April ends, I thought I would offer a few comments on what I’ve read so far.*  The entire

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Reading List 2018  is available through the menu at the top of this page.

Want to know why I’ve assigned myself a list of books to read this year? This post explains all.


Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson — Highly Recommend
If you read only one book from this list, please let it be this memoir. Read it to learn about the problems in the American judicial system, problems that exploit and traumatize our most defenseless populations as well as their families, communities, and participants in that system. Read it for the inspiring memoir of one man’s service to the most vulnerable members of our society. Read it to recognize, as does the author, that we all need some measure of mercy in our lives.

Wuthering Heights (Penguin Classics), Emily Bronte — Recommend
It’s a classic novel. It’s dark and intense. The characters will rouse your emotions and try your patience. If you like quality historical fiction with a dark side, give it a try. If, like me, you read it in high school and hated it, give it one more chance. I’m glad I did. (Read more about that experience here.)

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel, Anthony Doerr — Highly Recommend
“Meticulous craftsmanship” is my first thought when this book comes to mind. It’s a theme throughout the book and it’s a perfect way to describe Doerr’s WWII tale of a blind French girl and an unusually gifted German boy who eventually meet in occupied France. Each chapter is finely wrought. Characters are slowly, exquisitely developed. The story is relentlessly fascinating. If you’re skeptical of the accolades heaped upon this book, let me assure you: they’re well-deserved.

The Magician’s Elephant, Kate DiCamillo –Highly Recommend
I enjoyed reading aloud this middle-grade novel with my eight year-old and six year-old. It has a varied cast of distinctive, evolving characters, including an orphan boy and an unexpected elephant, both yearning for home. It’s a story of longings: for relationships and community; for forgiveness and redemption. It’s also a story of perseverance, compassion, and a little bit of magic.

Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White (Ala Notable Children’s Books. All Ages), Melissa Sweet — Recommend
This middle-grade biography was a surprise addition to my reading list, a gift for my kids that I decided to “just thumb through” then kept reading. It’s a fully illustrated biography incorporating White’s childhood journals, letters, photos, and manuscripts as well as the author’s original collage art. White’s journey from a curious boy who loved words to beloved author of children’s stories is a pleasure to follow, especially when artistically embellished with such rich and varied primary source material.


Currently Reading: Macbeth, William Shakespeare; Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman;   The Green Ember (The Green Ember Series: Book 1), S.D. Smith;  Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More ?Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, Karen Swallow-Prior; Acts (of the Apostles)

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What’s So Great About Wuthering Heights?

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Photo by ASHISH SHARMA on Pexels.com

I first read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when I was eighteen, more than two decades ago. And, until recently, I’ve never wanted to repeat the experience. My recollection of that initial reading is not pleasant: a winter-dark moor; a disappointed, malevolent lover; a lot of death.

However, when my two eldest children were assigned the novel for school, I began to wonder if a second reading might change my opinion. As a fiction writer, I figured Bronte had plenty to teach me, whether I enjoyed her book or not. Also, I  wanted to know why it’s considered such a great work of literature.  So I read it again, and began to find the answers to my questions within the first few paragraphs.

From the hearty enthusiasm of the narrator to Heathcliff’s glum countenance and his aged servant’s cranky piety, the characters immediately engaged my emotions. As a reader, I was, in turn, curious, amused, wary, and repulsed, all within just a few pages. Character after character was introduced, each as distinctive as the last, and I heartily despised most of them, yet still found myself interested in the resolution of their stories. In fact, my interest held–no matter how I felt about each character–long after the final word was read.

As a reader, I was in turn curious, amused, wary, and repulsed, all within just a few pages.

Yet, Bronte was more than just a clever portraitist. Nearly every principle character suffers and reacts accordingly, changing in appearance, attitudes, and actions. She has wrung from them any contribution they could make to the themes and progression of her story. Yes, there is a background character or two that serve little more than to nudge the plot forward, but considering the depth of more than a half-dozen characters, the insipidity of an occasional minor role is hardly worth mentioning.

As a writer, I found myself wondering if the characters in my current work are as vivid. Would they grip a reader’s attention like Bronte’s cast? Are they really changing as the story progresses, like Heathcliff, Cathy, and Hindley, or are they just propping up the plot? I  recalled equally potent characters from other works and made a note to examine them as well: evil Cathy Ames from East of Eden; despicable Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; the virtuous and stalwart heroine of Jane Eyre, by Emily Bronte’s sister, Charlotte.

Bronte’s use of setting is just as skillful as her characterization. Throughout the entire novel, the two divergent homes, and the moor with its similarly contrasting seasons, consistently mirror the struggles of the characters and communicate themes of suffering, hope, and redemption. As a reader, I enjoyed the sensuous details because they did more than supply helpful images.  They complemented the complex characterization, unifying the whole story.

As a writer, I marveled that Bronte endowed her setting with as much emotional heft as her characters. I realized that I too often use setting as a frame for my narrative–a pretty but simple bit of orientation for the reader. 

Throughout the entire novel, the two divergent homes, and the moor with its similarly contrasting seasons, consistently mirror the struggles of the characters and communicate themes of suffering, hope, and redemption.

I’ll risk the accusation of hubris to venture one criticism. Bronte’s narrative technique was sometimes distracting. She uses a first-person narrator to relate the story, but he reports most of the narrative as it is told to him (in first-person) by another character, who at times relates to him what has been told to her by several other characters, both in person and by letter. (Yes, it was rather confusing.) More than once I had to look back a page or two in order to remember which character had taken over the first-person voice. As I writer, I think I would look for an alternative way to overcome the limits of first-person narration or choose a different perspective altogether.

In the end, Bronte won me over completely. Her settings are masterful and communicate nearly as much to the reader as the characters. That is significant indeed because even the most disinterested of readers will not remain impassive when encountering her characters. A reader may groan, laugh, despair, exult, or throw down the book in disgust, but they will respond. As a writer, I couldn’t ask for more.

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Wuthering Heights is FREE for your e-reading device or app:
Kindle
Nook

Unpacking Old Friends

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One of the pleasures of moving into a new home is tearing open boxes of books to rescue the favorites packed away for the duration of the move.  When driving cross country in a suburban packed with seven humans, space is precious. In fact, the only physical book I carried along on this recent journey was a pocket-sized bible that I tucked into my purse.

E-readers saved me. I had hours and hours of reading available with the press of a few buttons, and I am grateful that I was able to carry a virtual library in the palm of my hand.  Still, there’s nothing like a real, bound book.

I like the weight of hundreds of pages in my hands. I like thumbing back to reread a passage, or holding a place with my finger because I know I’ll want to experience a particular phrase one more time. I like the straight edges, firm covers, the sound of shifting pages, the mysterious fragrance that belongs only to books. My e-reader sustains me in difficult times, but it is a thin sensory experience when compared to the comfort of real books.

Wherever I’ve made my home, I’ve always kept a stack of good reads on my bedside table. It’s an optimistic volume of reading material. Some books lie unopened for weeks, but I like to know that they are there, whenever I want them.

This was the box that I  unpacked yesterday evening, my bed side table collection, packed away to declutter our last home for showing. I pulled out Patchett, Bonhoeffer and Lee, adding them to Dillard and Kingsolver, picked up for pennies at a library sale last week, and L’amour, gifted by my mother, who knows I have a fondness for his short stories. It was a joyful reunion, welcoming these old friends to my new home.

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