The Ten Best Books of 2011

Well, I did it again. I read 50 books this year. Just like 2010. And it wasn’t even a goal. That just must be my pace. Earlier this week as I made an entry for ‘the Shack’ in my book journal (my dorkiness knows no bounds) I decided to go back though and count how many I had read this year. The Shack turned out to be #49. I rounded out the year with an amnesia thriller ‘Before I Go To Sleep.’

Here is my ten best list, pulled from the 50. They’re listed in the order I read them.

1. Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. The Wars by Timothy Findley.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. The Bible Jesus Read by Philip Yancey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. Imagining Argentina by Lawrence Thornton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. Room by Emma Donoghue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10. The Shack by William P. Young.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’d like to say something about The Shack. I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of hype. I did. And yet, I just kept putting it off until someone put it in my hand.

It surpassed all the hype.

And here are some honorable mentions. The only reason why these aren’t on the list is because I really felt I should stop at 10.

  • The End of Reason by Ravi Zacharias.
  • Before I go to Sleep by S.J. Watson.
  • The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.
  • Men in Prison by Victor Serge.
  • Scared by Tom Davis.
  • Priceless by Tom Davis.
  • The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker.
  • The Republic of Love by Carol Shields.

And. If you care. The entire list of the 50 books I read this year:

  1. Common Magic by Bronwen Wallace.
  2. People You’d Trust Your Life To by Bronwen Wallace.
  3. Being and Nothingness by Jean Paul Sartre.
  4. Seed Catalogue by Robert Kroetsch.
  5. The Wars by Timothy Findley.
  6. Shoot! by George Bowering.
  7. Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore.
  8. The Rez Sisters by Tomson Highway.
  9. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.
  10. Permission to Speak Freely by Anne Jackson.
  11. Gods and Kings by Lynn Austin.
  12. Traveling Light by Max Lucado.
  13. A Watershed Year by Susan Schoenberger.
  14. Radical by David Platt.
  15. Radical Together by David Platt.
  16. The Mailbox by Marybeth Whalen.
  17. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
  18. On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony.
  19. The White Queen by Philippa Gregory.
  20. The Republic of Love by Carol Shields.
  21. Scared by Tom Davis.
  22. Fields of Gold by Andy Stanley.
  23. The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker.
  24. Unashamed by Francine Rivers.
  25. Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card.
  26. The Help by Katheryn Stockett.
  27. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.
  28. The Bible Jesus Read by Philip Yancey.
  29. The Eighth Shepherd by Bodie and Brock Theone.
  30. Almost Heaven by Chris Fabray.
  31. The End of Reason by Ravi Zacharias.
  32. The Weight of Silence by
  33. Imagining Argentina by Lawrence Thornton.
  34. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke.
  35. The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer.
  36. Twelfth Night by Shakespeare.
  37. Beowulf.
  38. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge by George Berkeley.
  39. A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume.
  40. Sentences and Paroles, a Prison Reader by PJ Murphy.
  41. Paroled for Life by PJ Murphy
  42. Metamorphosis, the Penal Colony and other stories by Franz Kafka.
  43. The Lost Ones by Samuel Beckett.
  44. Men in Prison by Victor Serge.
  45. Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov
  46. By the River Piedra, I Sat Down and Wept by Paulo Coelho.
  47. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.
  48. Room by Emma Donoghue.
  49. The Shack by William P. Young.
  50. Before I go to Sleep by S.J. Watson.

Most of these were pretty good, to tell you the truth. I could count on one hand the titles I didn’t really care for. I didn’t include any of the textbooks in my top ten list simply because the purpose of the list is to make recommendations to you, and these books aren’t for everyone. But they were still great.

Happy Reading in 2012!

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Bragging Rights

It is Boxing Day! Which means for me that it is time to get back to normal and start getting ready for January. It means getting all the sugar from the last week out of my system, taming the disaster that my living room has become, heading back to the gym, (spending the gift certificate I received for the mall) and figuring out my schedule for the next four months.

At 7am I poured fresh coffee in my new Starbucks mug (thanks Liz!) and sat down to transcribe some dates from my e-mail and from my old calendar into my new day planner. I went to the university website to double check that I return to school a full week later than my kids do (yes it is true!) (hello pre-reading!).

While I was there, I decided to log into my account and check my grades from last semester. After I handed in my last paper I just walked away and hadn’t looked back.

Today I looked back. And this is what I found. Copied and pasted:

10662ENGL 211001Literary Landmarks in English to 1700    Grade: A

10672ENGL 319001Literature of Modern PrisonGrade: A

11175PHIL315001The Empiricists (3,0,0)Grade: A

12734PHIL3170DSST: Kierkegaard & Descendants     Grade: A+

Undergraduate Summary

GPA Current Term: 4.08

My best term yet. There are usually minuses behind those A’s. I can’t believe I escaped a semester without a single minus.

Go me.

Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

My second read of the holiday season:

I was a little apprehensive about reading this book right now – I thought it might be too creepy of a read for the holiday season. But it has been on my wish list for a year now, and a friend just passed a copy on to me (thanks friend!) so I just had to delve in. I finished it in two days. It was a real page turner, and surprisingly un-creepy despite the premise. The book is from the point of view of a five year old boy who lives with his mother in a locked 11 foot by 11 foot room. The room is all he has ever known, because he was born there.  But he is growing bigger and more inquisitive and his mother eventually has to admit to him that there is a world outside…

The book was very good. The plot was fast moving. I loved the workings of the five year old mind. It was original. Inventive. Thought-provoking. I give it four stars out of five. I thought the mother character (all the adult characters actually) could have had a little more depth. And over-all it wasn’t really enlightening or mind-broadening in any way.

If you’ve been looking at it for a while, but haven’t picked it up yet – I’d say go for it.

Plugged In

For a long time I have been living in a relatively ‘unplugged’ manner. I stopped blogging for one thing, which didn’t last very long, but it sure reduced the amount of time I was spending online. Also, I don’t facebook or twitter or really participate in social networks.

And, I didn’t have a cell phone. I did for a long time. But then we were really struggling financially a few years ago and my husband suggested we ditch our cell phones, since the bill was high and we didn’t really need them. It took me a good six months for him to talk me into giving it up, I felt like it was my lifeline to the world. But then I did, and everything was fine. In fact, I found that my world became a lot more peaceful, not being ‘reachable’ at any moment. I found myself resisting getting another phone even when it became more reasonable for our budget.

So I’ve been living in the dark ages. E-mail. Home phone. And kind of loving it, to tell you the truth.

But this year it was becoming more and more inconvenient to not have a cell, since I’m hardly ever home, and especially now that my kids are all over the city for play-dates and activities and such.

And I’ve noticed that my social life has been slowly dying. For the first little while I loved that people phoned me to talk to me (a real human voice!) instead of just checking my name in a box of invitees from a list for events, or sending out information to everybody all at once. But I guess as people have become more and more connected to one another via social media, I have actually become really disconnected. I never know what is going on anymore. And my friends have all been strengthening friendships with other friends because of the constant connection, while all of my relationships have been growing thinner. That was surprising to me. I had been running under the assumption that online connections are shallower and therefore a waste of time compared to the ‘real’ thing. But no. I guess I must do as the natives do if I want to be one of them.

I started blogging again. Because I just can’t not, if you know what I mean. And this week I finally got a phone! Actually, it’s been in discussions for most of the year that it is time for me to get one again, but I was sort of procrastinating, and I was also holding out until I could afford an iPhone. I knew if I got something that wasn’t an iPhone I would just be pining for one all the while being committed to something that wasn’t an iPhone. I know what I want.

The first day I had it I got to figure out texting (texting was new and a somewhat uncommon thing when I gave up my phone.) I quickly learned all about auto-correct. I never knew how helpful and annoying it could be at the same time. I texted all night long with three friends, and it took me five times as long to get the dishes done because I had to keep stopping to dry my hands.

I signed up for instagram right away because it was the one app that I knew most of my friends used. And I found a great game – Letris! A addictive combination of spelling and Tetris. And then my kids got me hooked on Whale Trail, which they play on their iPod. And last night, my husband introduced me to Angry Birds. I am now understanding all the Angry Bird hype that I didn’t previously get. Now I get it.

I can see that I am going to have a lot less time on my hands for doing other things. I can’t stop touching the darn phone! But I’m having a lot of fun with it. And I feel a little more connected to the wide world. It is happy. I am happy.

7 things from the last 7 days

1. Baked dozens of shortbread cookies and tried a new roasted squash soup recipe. Yum.

2. Got an iPhone 4s. (Christmas present.) (Loving it…)

3. Shoveled our insanely steep driveway for the first time this winter.

4. Attended three Christmas parties.

5. …and a family Christmas dinner at my grandma’s farm out of town.

6. Submitted the final paper of the semester.

7. Finished reading a great novel, which I highly recommend:

When I was a kid, Christmas was the best. It had everything:

Cookies. Candies. Presents. The fanciest dresses and shoes of the year. Special songs. Lights. Sparkles. Decorations. Santa. Elves. Myths. Stories. Parties. Feasts. Family dinners. Time off from school. My Dad and Papa playing Christmas carols on their guitars while we all sang along. The Sears Wishbook. Making crafts. Sending and receiving cards and stringing them up on the walls. Staying up late. Cousins. Stockings. Excitement. Magic. Mystery. It was the best time of the year.

And then I became an adult. And a Christian. And a parent. And a socialist-type. And somehow, all of those things that really, you would think would make Christmas better, but have really just made it more complicated.

Now these are some of the things I have come to expect:

Guilt over the amount of money I spend. An awareness of all the children in my town that won’t get the happy Christmas celebration they deserve (see above). Awareness of all the children in the world that won’t get the happy Christmas celebration they deserve (see above). Guilt over the fact that I love all of the things about my childhood Christmases because now that I’m a Christian it is supposed to be about baby Jesus and that is all. Guilt about wanting to give my kids all of the glee I had (see above) when I’m also trying to raise them to be focused on Jesus, and not obsessed with consumerism. Guilt about not being more creative about the gifts I give, and not making more things by hand and from scratch the way some of my friends do and the way my Mom did.

Guilt about not feeling as joyful as I did when I was a child, even though I should be more joyful because now I know the true meaning of Christmas. Generalized guilt, is what I feel, is what I’m trying to say.

Please don’t misunderstand. I still love Christmas and I try and make as much magic happen in our home as I possibly can. I still enjoy singing carols and baking cookies and all that traditional stuff. It’s just that these other things have come to tinge the holiday with a certain grayness. It is what I’ve come to expect.

But something happened this year that has given me a new perspective. And I have to say, I had no idea that it would change my feeling about Christmas. I took a course in Prison Literature.

It started off in September, the way courses do, with a pile of books and a vague curiosity and a blank slate, ready to learn something new. We started off reading some literary works, mostly personal essays and poetry written by inmates in a nearby maximum security prison. It was a bizarre experience to read all these incredibly astute and moving pieces of writing and also know that the writers were murderers, every one. We learned a lot about the penal system here in Canada. (Which was very sad and kind of made me want to become an activist until I remembered that if I were to become an activist for real, there are probably other causes I would take up. Sad but true.) Anyways.

As the course progressed we moved on to other kinds of prison lit, including works written by political prisoners of all kinds. We read Men In Prison by Victor Serge, which is some of the most incredible writing I have ever read. It has the feel of a classic, like something everyone should know, you know. This is a bit of what the biography bit at the beginning of his book says about him:

“Victor Serge is an authentic witness of the revolutionary politics of our century. Participant in three major revolutions, political activist in seven countries and seasoned inmate of prisons East and West, Serge never ceased throughout his life to do battle for the ideals of socialism and freedom.”

He was imprisoned in and then chased out of most of Europe and died in exile in Mexico without any possessions or even a nationality. Because he never landed in particular political camp he sort of fell between the cracks and his writing has now out of print since the 70’s. His book was only part of our course because my prof had found a copy on the floor of a library in a prison he once worked at (teaching college English to inmates) and pilfered it. I read this man’s amazing writing from photocopy, being amazed at what I was reading because of what it was, and also amazed that I might be among the last people on earth to read it. Bizarre.

That has nothing to do with Christmas. But reading Serge was a transitory time in the course because he was the first author we read who wasn’t a “criminal” per se. He was a revolutionary imprisoned for political reasons. He was incredibly idealistic and his ability to hang on to hope and a sense of purpose helped him to survive some incredibly brutal circumstances.

But that was nothing compared to what came next.

In early December I found myself digging deep into a collection of short stories, trying to write a good paper in exchange for a good grade. The collection was titled Kolyma Tales. Because all of the stories came from experiences of a man who spent years and years of his life in Kolyma, better known as Siberia, in the Soviet Gulag forced-labor camps. The author, Varlam Shalamov, was the son of a priest and a law school student when he was first sent to the camps in 1929 at the age of 22 for his political associations. He wound up in the camps until 1961 when the Soviet government deemed him ‘rehabilitated’ and he was allowed to return to Moscow.

He wasn’t able to write about life in the camps for years afterward, and when he finally did and had the stories smuggled and printed in the west, he still had to disown his own work in order to prove himself a loyal citizen. The tales were absolutely horrifying. The attitude in camp was utter hopelessness as I have never imagined. Kolyma was a death camp. The people sent there were forced to work hard labour in the freezing cold without adequate clothing. They were simultaneously starved. Shalamov himself, at six feet tall, dropped to 90 pounds. And still worked, for all those years, in the frozen, freezing cold, watching everyone around him die. It is estimated that half a million people died in the camps, but no one really knows.

I’ve been a student of history my whole life. And I’m no stranger to statistics, and to the details of horrifying things that humans have done to one another over time. But it was an entirely different experience to be immersed in the stories. In the names and the personalities and the details of daily existence. I felt indifference coming over myself in way, which is what happened to the prisoners because it was the only way to deal. I had a difficult time sitting down to dinner everyday, when I was reading about starvation rations. Once, he did some work for an officer and was given six meal tickets as a reward. His friend was dying, and he himself was doing alright at the time, so he gave them to his friend, who cashed them in all at once. All six portions of the thin soup did not fill a a single bowl. At another point someone sent him some money. He knew it would be stolen, so he bought a pound of butter for its caloric value, intending to melt it into the evening’s “tea” (plain hot water) and share it with his buddy. He was bashed over the head from behind, knocked unconscious, and he awoke to find his butter had been stolen. They had to take the clothing of people who died to try and keep warm because there was never adequate covering against the cold. There was no possibility for them of holding on to hope of anything like there was for Serge. It felt important to be reading these accounts, lest they disappear into history, forgotten forever. But it was draining to be spending so much time thinking about it too.

But then on Monday afternoon I handed in my paper, ending the course. Tuesday found me traveling to Vancouver with my spouse and as we drove through the mountain passes I felt like I was exhaling all this pent up sadness.

Wednesday was the most joyful day. I was alone, on foot, in one of my favorite places – downtown Vancouver, from about 9am until 6pm, when I met up with him after his conference. The shopping! The displays! The people! The sounds! The traffic! The sights! The drizzle! The ocean! The skyscrapers! The food! The art! It was all wonderful. I had new eyes. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about Kolyma, but of course it came to mind at moments. What a world apart. And I was thinking about Christmas a lot because of all the reminders around me and because I was shopping for stocking stuffers.

I had this overwhelming feeling that all my usual worries were pointless. How blessed I am! I decided on the spot to simplify Christmas this year. And not in the sense of cutting back the presents and the activities and things that people always talk about. No. I’m going to simplify my attitude. My over-thinking. My constant analysis. I’m going to hang out with my family and have my friends over and celebrate with abandon and lights and cookies and music and I’ll buy too many stocking stuffers if I want to and I’ll give as much as I feel like giving because there’s no such thing as too much giving.

And if I read any rants about consumerism or hear any speeches about the ‘shoulds’ that other people are feeling about the season I won’t argue. I’ll just shrug and let it go, because I get that. I’m just not going to live that. Not this year.

This is Christmas. The most wonderful time of the year.

Tonight, tonight*

It is the first of December and I feel that its a good night for something new.

Yesterday, at lunch with my spouse, I realized it was the anniversary of our first kiss. The last day of November. Lucky thirteen. I thought of everything I am not certain of anymore.

In the evening I thought of what is stable and was surprised again at the gambles that I am willing to take. They’re not the ones I had originally imagined. But they amaze me a little bit.

The last day of November will forever be a marker of what has passed.

Let December the first be marked by anticipation then. Trying something new. A fresh attempt. Excitement and experiment.

I was a blogger for years and then I quit. I’ve been taking a breather and contemplating whether I would be up for another try. I feel happy that I was able to wipe the slate. With a little experience under my belt I wonder if I can direct this thing a little better in the direction that I want it to go, and avoid some of the trappings that were driving me crazy.

I’d like to express myself without getting so much flack from my relatives, really. And I use the term ‘relatives’ loosely here. Internet flack I can handle. Personal flack in the form of “the things you write are embarrassing to me because of my association with you” sentiments are a little more discouraging. For a long time I ignored the voices (real and imagined) and wrote what I wanted anyway. In the name of freedom of expression of an authentic self. And I could have kept doing it. But it just wore on me after a while.

I contemplated the private blog thing. But it wasn’t you-out-there that I wanted to avoid. It was the the those-around-here. And only a handful of individuals, really. Most people are full of blog-love, or they just choose not to read, which is also fine. But if I made it private then the handful would be offended for being excluded. Some people just want to be offended. Because then they can feel like you owe them something.

That’s not all of course. I was in a topic rut. I wanted to stop blogging about certain things but felt people were expecting those topics. I wanted to try new things, but worried people would yawn. There were a zillion little tweaks I wanted to make.

Anyways. So I wiped the slate. And I had a lovely breather. But sometimes I just felt the urge to post. And I had no outlet. And I really missed interacting with the blogging community at large.

So. I’m doing something new. An anonymous kind of thing. I’m going to have fun with it and sometimes write exactly what is going on and sometimes I will just make it up as I go. Sometimes it will be deep and sometimes shallow. Sometimes it will be art and sometimes drivel. Sometimes depressing and sometimes bright and buzzing.

Here’s to tonight. The first of December.

*humming the Smashing Pumpkin’s song “Tonight, tonight” song as I compose this post.