The first book I read this year was titled, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, by Carl Zimmer. The best part of the book was its title. And a few nights ago I finished Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul. It’s been on my “must read” list for about forty years. Jung’s book is interesting in that it is both wrong on many counts, as new scientific developments have surpassed him; but irresistibly wise too, about the invisible currents that move us and shape our lives.
I read a book-a-week this year. It's what I do to unwind. I also have the habit of once starting a book, always finishing it. So I read some books this past year that didn't much impress me (Marcus Borg's Putting Away Childish Things was a theology book disguised as a novel. One Goodreads.com star.) What follows here, though, are some of my favourite reads from the past year. They are all five-star worthy.
One: I found Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments to be both a page turner and a wise, hopeful take on how we as humans might overcome some of our darker religious impulses. It was gripping, and a fitting conclusion to her Handmaid’s Tale.
Two: I also read a trilogy of books—Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden, Daughter of Eden, and Mother of Eden—about a human settlement on a planet with no sun, whose heat was all derived from a thermal core deep inside. It was a lovely exercise in world building. But the trilogy was an even more fascinating exploration of religion building, of class structure, and of sexual ethics. Science fiction is usually what I read for fun and escapism. However, all of these books—and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time—also demanded serious reflection about our society and introspection about myself and my priorities.
Three: A review in the New York Times led me to Silver, Sword and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story. Author Marie Arana discusses how commerce, military conquest, and religion have shaped South and Central American society and culture. The picture she paints is not pretty. But her story telling is superb, and it is definitely a story privileged white people like me need to hear.
Four: I read several books about Canada’s First Nations. The first was Toronto Star writer Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City. This book explored the suspicious deaths of several First Nation kids who attended high school far from their homes, in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The structural racism these kids faced by being forced to live so far from home to attend school, in a city where they were clearly seen as troublesome and expendable, in a school system that was much too short of resources for no good reason other than racism bears reading. Talaga tells her stories with compassion and flair, which makes this hard read also strangely satisfying and worthwhile.
Jesse Thistle’s From the Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way tells a more hopeful story about how, in spite of beginning his life with many deficits, Jesse nevertheless somehow succeeded. A big part of the story here concerns the faithfulness of families, friends, and lovers.
Five: Tara Westover’s Educated is an amazing memoir about growing up in a Mormon family. Her parents are abusive, neglectful, and into survivalism. Tara is home schooled--barely. But she manages to make it to college and graduate school.
Six: I walked into Toronto’s best bookstore during the early fall—Ben Mcnally’s, on Bay Street near City Hall. Tragically, the store is being forced to relocate in order for its space to be redeveloped. But it’s a treasure of trove of books not necessarily best sellers, but all very fine. The book I found on my last trip there was Andrew Pettegree’s The Bookshop of the World: Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age. Given my academic interest in literacy this book about the Dutch book trade during its Golden Age was fabulous.
And since I’m of Dutch extraction, two other books were very interesting to me. Max Havelaar by Multatuli is a nineteenth century exposé of the horrors of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia that left the Dutch without excuse when it came to another hundred years of their racist and violent exploitation of that country. And Blacks in the Dutch World by Allison Blakely was an interesting account of the slow but growing presence of Blacks in the Netherlands from the fifteenth century on. The book covers the sickening role of Dutch slave traders in some detail as well.
Seven: Perhaps the most fascinating book I read, at least from a professional perspective as a preacher and theologian, was Ronald Hendel’s How Old Is the Hebrew Bible: A Linguistic, Textual, and Historical Study. I’ve read a number of books about ancient Jewish religion of late, and though this one was a bit technical when it came to Hebrew grammar, I could follow it pretty well. It was especially interesting when it discussed the evolution of Yahweh from a minor tribal god, to Israel’s chief god, to the idea that Yahweh was the one and only God—monotheism.
Eight: Another New York Times book review led me to Cara Wall’s The Dearly Beloved. How could I not love this book about two clergy families? Two young ministers, one a social activist and the other an intellectual pilgrim, arrive together at a New York church as co-pastors. They struggle through the upheavals of the sixties to forge a close relationship in spite of very different spouses, beliefs, and family challenges. It’s about faith, the realities of being a minister, and the inner lives of people facing huge challenges. Beautifully written, too.
Nine: A young woman who used to be my neighbour, Mariama Lockington, wrote a challenging, sad, but ultimately hopeful book for teens entitled For Black Girls Like Me. The book has received a lot of recognition and many awards. Although the setting is the United States, it is well worth reading by Canadians dedicated to making our multi-cultural society work.
Ten: Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black is a strange book touched by just a bit of magical realism. It is about a slave boy who escapes his destiny in a balloon, finds himself by passing through both the arctic and deserts, and has an abiding love of sea life. He escapes slavery, falls in love, and finds himself. What could be better than that? This book also offers many insights into racism, slavery, and trauma along the way.
Eleven: The strangest but most lyrical book I read this year was another one touched by magical realism—in this case a lot of it. It’s Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia. Set in and just after Mexico’s civil war, this is a story about how a foundling saved a man from living a meaningless life. He—the foundling—had a thing for bees too, or rather, the bees had a thing for him. Lovely. It led me to read a non-fiction book about bees that was pretty interesting too, Thor Hanson’s The Nature and Necessity of Bees.