Sunday, January 21, 2007

2009 - Best Books of the Year

The Twelve Little Cakes, Dominika Dery.
Autobiography, 349 pages. Two pages into it, standing the bookstore, I have tears in my eyes - next two pages, I'm at home, swallowing down sudden lumps in my throat – because of the stingingly sweet and true voice of a girl who demanded to be born. Told with a sly humor, this memoir of growing up under the cloud of political disapproval in Communism Czechoslovakia is a testament – truly a testimony – to family loyalty, human persistence & the inextinguishable joy of life.

The Tiger Ladies: a memoir of Kashmir, Sudha Koul.
Autobiography, 218 pages. Lyric explosion of memory of the author's years growing up in the most beautiful valley in the world before Muslim-Hindu violence erupts. A beautiful evocation of a disappeared existence, achingly blind-eyed to the seeds of chaos that a later reader can read in the account.

Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrlees.
Fantasy novel written in the mid 1920s, 239 pages. Delightful medieval-esque setting and gripping plot of courage and of petty political maneuvering with believably endearing characters. Every character – even the slightest – seems to take the stage with an almost Shakespearian swagger.

World made by Hand, James Howard Kunstler.
Speculative, post-apocalyptic fiction, 317 pages. In a world without oil, climate-changed and after a series of pandemics, a former marketing executive turned carpenter, and his fellow residents of Union Grove forge a new life in a believably altered world.  Says the inside front cover: "a novel full of love and loss, violence and power, sex and drugs, depression and desperation, but also plenty of hope.”  I'd say the blurb got it right.

Gilead, Marilynne Robison.
Novel set in rural 1950s America, 247 pages. Pure and true. I don't want to give away more than that except to say that this book is far more than the sum of its parts: love and fear, the role of memory, hope with and beyond death.  This book lifted me up out of myself.

My Family and Other Animals, Gerry Durrell.
Autobiography, 273 pages. An British naturalist tells of his childhood growing up among his eccentric English family on the island of Crete - which from his young perspective teemed with animal, especially insect, life and was a boy's own paradise.  I read this aloud to 9 year old son, who listened enraptured and envious.

This Sovereign Land: a new vision for governing the West, Daniel Kemmis.
Environmental, pro-West, 263 pages. Interesting, though as a Congressman he has a definite ax to grind, but a persuasive argument that local solutions might be more finely tuned and responsive than any diktat out of Washington, D.C.

A River No More: the Colorado River and the West, Philip L. Fradkin.
Environmental, pro-East, 360 pages. On the other side, Fradkin is an East Coaster who has a passion for the Colorado River and feels it can never be protected without the objectivity of those outside the region. He writes intelligently, even passionately, but my sympathies are not with him.

The Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett.
Fantasy young adult novel set in the sheep and chalk country of southern England, CD (or 263 pages). Deliciously funny and surprisingly and satisfyingly moving as well. A pugnacious heroine who overcomes evil forces with the help of a deliciously lewd and larcenous band of tiny men (led by the fearless Rob Anybody). Also A Hat Full of Sky, 278 pages; Wintersmith, 323 pages; The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, 241 pages.

Ironhand, Charlie Fletcher.
Fantasy young adult novel, CD (or 386 pages). Sequel to Stoneheart, and like it, better heard than read silently to self. The quest continues through the streets of London and its living statues.  These books are great for cross-country roadtrips - read by Jim Dale of Scholastic Audiobooks.

Music of the Bible Revealed: the deciphering of a millenary notation, Suzanne Haik-Vantoura, translated by Dennis Weber, edited by John Wheeler.
Musical tradition and history of chironomy, 557 pages. Haik-Vantoura, a Jewish musical scholar of the last generation (her education postponed when Nazis overran Paris and she fled with her family to southern France - but it was during that time that she first began studying the mysterious notation in Hebrew Bible manuscripts), describes a system of musical notation that has almost disappeared from our sight – one based on ancient systems of hand signs, or chironomy. She sketches the history of chironomy in Egypt, India and into the Middles Ages of Europe. She also argues that the books of the Bible were songs, set to ancient music, and that our earliest surviving manuscripts of the Bible carry marks of this lost music. Her reconstructions are strangely moving – majestic, profound and beautifully wedded to the sense of the words.    For more info click links below:                                        
The Creation:

NPR Morning Edition, 1986:

Budapest: A City Guide, Annabel Barber and Emma Roper-Evans.
Travel, 187 pages. Visible City series. Lucid writing, inviting pictures.  A city of art nouveau facades, layers on layers of history, elegant public baths with little old ladies in flowery bathing caps, famous little cakes. What’s not to like?

Talking Hands: what sign language reveals about the mind, Margalit Fox.
Non-fiction survey of communities where sign language has naturally arisen, 354 pages.  Though written in “journalese” and disappointingly sketchy, the survey of many signing communities is interesting.

Visible Thought: A New Psychology of Body Language, Geoffrey Beattie.
Non-fiction, clinical and anecdotal observations about natural body language, 206 pages. Much more fascinating: by the psychologist of a British TV series, "Big Brother." Well-written, candidly sharing results of his gestural/ vocal communication experiments and engaging anecdotes from the TV series illustrating what body language tells us.

Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech, William C. Stokoe.
Non-fiction, history of sign language and its role in the devolopment of verbal language, 227 pages. Best by far.  By the founder of sign language linguistics - this guy writes with passion and lucid erudition and makes an interesting though controversial case about the roots of human communication.

The Mummies of Urumchi, Elizabeth Wayland Barber.
Non-fiction, language and textiles, 240 pages. Everything I've come to expect from this textile archaeologist and linguist. Eminently readable tracing of a population moving across Central Europe from remarkably well-preserved textiles in the Gobi desert and linguistic evidence. Barber is clear, enjoyable, fascinated with her topic, a genius at fine detail and the broader picture both, and eager to share what she's seen.

The Haunted Pool, George Sand.
Rural folk novelette, 167 pages, translated from the French by Frank Hunter Potter. Though idealized, the timeless characters and simple plot create the reverberating quality of a folk-tale. Details of French village life also appealing. I also enjoyed her novel, Countess of Rudolstadt (428 pages) - right up until the end when characters begin to speak in lengthy monologues (pages not mere paragraphs!) about their tiresomely Dan Brownesque Da-Vinci-Code "New Religion."

Greenwillow, B.J. Chute.
Rural village novel, 237 pages. As good as I had remembered from my girlhood - a slyly sweet book about a village perhaps in New England, perhaps in Southern England, where a young man waits for the Call that will drag him away from the farm he loves. Against a backdrop of various small village doings.

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, Geoff Dyer.
Autobiography/ biography, 242 pages. More about Dyer reading Lawrence than it is about Lawrence per se – but engrossing. And an evocation of the endless difficulty of putting words down on paper.

Little Lady Agency and the Prince, Hester Browne.
Fluff novel, 391 pages - which I blush to own.  Picked up at the airport. Fluffy, fluffy, and way too much fun. The double-entendres fly over the head of the innocently smouldery main character who dons a blonde wig, vintage corsets, pencil skirts, and a sudden and surprisingly straightforward assertiveness to counsel and coach clueless London bachelors in the fine art of gallantry and grooming . . . and you can already imagine all the delightful entanglements that leads to . . .

Girls of Riyadh, Rajaa Alsanea.
Semi-autobiographical novel, 286 pages, translated from Arabic by the author and Marilyn Booth. Four friends in modern Saudi Arabia look for love and a life of meaning. Sad stories, terrible limitations of choices, but also a testament to the buoyancy of human nature and the power of storytelling to effect change.

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion.
Autobiography of a year of grief by an accomplished novelist, 227 pages. Middle child checked this book out twice from the library and insisted I read it. The story of Didion’s marriage and her year coping with the grief after her husband’s sudden death. Writing is limpid and electric without ever becoming self-indulgent.

Intrusions, Ursula Heigl.
Novel (autobiography?), 288 pages. Too funny and too true a tale about a mother of young children who also writes. The intrusions – not just her husband and children and their demands, but the whining of the characters and the bad advice of former writing teachers – all become part of the story.

Borrower of the Night, Elizabeth Peters.
Art historian mystery novel, 247 pages. A fresh novel from Peters (whose Peabody mysteries have become bogged-down by their own weight) about an art historian (who suffers from inordinate comeliness) and a lost art treasure.  Fun and clever.

Le Mariage, Diane Johnson.
Novel, 322 pages. While her other novels (L’Affaire, Le Divorce) are exactly what they look like from the cover – shallow, Francophile sex-plots – this one has a surprising depth and universality to it and a level of writing not found in the others. The ending is a little contrived and paranoid – and the two most principled characters jump into a lusty adultery with the obvious approval of their author – but the main conflict between the niceties of culture (esp. French culture) and the raw emotions of human nature makes for a revealing read.

Old Friends and New Fancies: an imaginary sequel to the novels of Jane Austen, Sybil G. Brinton (in 1914).
Novel, 377 pages. Unlike more recent attempts to write what happens next after the end of Austen’s novels, this one catches the decorum and keeps the characters true in this novel where all the characters of Austendom are connected somehow and all the younger siblings find their true love’s match with a lightness and wit that Austen may well have approved of.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

2008 - Best Books of the Year

Fredericka, Georgette Heyer.
Classic Regency romance, 296 pages. See also The Grand Sophy (346 pages), The Nonesuch (300 pages), Sylvester (276 pages), The Unknown Ajax (286 pages), all with capable heroines and intelligent heroes with deep (occasionally untapped) resources of humor and generosity. Rereading them has been a great pleasure. I’m not as fond of her bad-tempered rake-heroes, though I must admit I've read every one of her books I’ve been able to find and all of them with some degree of pleasure. The details of her evocations of the period are a marvel. 

Hope Human and Wild: true stories of living lightly on the Earth, Bill McKibben.
Narrative essays about successful environmental case studies, 235 pages. Engagingly written even on a repeat-reading.

The Price of a Dream: the story of the Grameen Bank, David Bornstein.
Biography of Yunus Muhammad, 370 pages.  Focuses on the history of Grameen lending banks in rural Bangladesh.

Women and Microcredit in Rural Bangladesh: anthropological study of the rhetoric and realities of Grameen Bank lending, Aminur Rahman.
Scholarly inquiry, 188 pages.   Measuring the distance between ideal and actuality.

Give Us Credit, Alex Counts.
Economic philosophy and history of Grameen-style cooperative lending in Bangladesh and Chicago, USA, 361 pages. Interesting to see how microcredit may play out in other societies than Bangladesh.

By Faith Alone: one family’s epic journey through 400 years of American Protestantism, Bill Griffeth.
Family/ American history, 288 pages. A surprisingly engaging way to trace the history of our nation – through the author’s family history. The chapters about Salem and the witch trials were especially moving as the author is descended from one of the two courageous and saintly old ladies who were the last to be wrongly executed for witchcraft. (We are descended from their youngest brother who was an old man at the time of their execution).

Mayflower: a story of courage, community, and war, Nathaniel Philbrick.
Colonial history, 461 pages. Interesting for the focus on the relations between Native and European and the fluctuating loyalties that led to King Phillip’s War. Now I know what the notation on our family genealogy – “died in Great Swamp War” – refers to, as one of our hotheaded ancestors shows up in this history briefly.

Edible Forest Gardens. Volume one: ecological vision and theory for temperate-climate permaculture; Volume two: . . . design and practice . . ., Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier.
Permaculture theory, 378 pages, and design guide, 655 pages.  A good lot of work, but what an appealing idea! Re-creating an Eden of food-bearing trees and other perennial plants growing in mutually beneficial groves.

Break Through: from the death of environmentalism to the politics of possibility, Ted Norhaus and Michael Shellenberger.
Environmental philosophy and blatant hope-mongering, 344 pages. They urge that human power and ingenuity be unleashed, not curtailed; that we focus on aspiration and possibility rather than gloom-and-doom limiting. The writing is vigorous, the reasoning hard-headedly realistic, and the tone generous.

The White Witch, Elizabeth Goudge.
Novel set at the time of the English Revolution, 439 pages.  Even-handed in its treatment of Roundheads and Cavaliers, intricately and accurately detailed with characters that fit within their time, but best of all an exciting tale of adventure. The main character is an herbalist and healing woman whose prosperous brother becomes staunchly Protestant and whose true love is a Catholic on the run.

The Seven Sisters of India: tribal worlds between Tibet and Burma, Aglaja Stirn and Peter van Ham.
Photographic essays, 167 pages.  Tribal groups in the Indian subcontinent – what a wealth of lifeways I’ve known nothing about.

Dreams from my Father: a story of race and inheritance, Barack Obama.
Autobiography of the first black president of Harvard Review (now US president-elect), 442 pages. I read it because I kept getting emails “quoting” from this book and had to check for myself if anyone was really that idiotic and evil-minded. What I discovered was a thoughtful, candid (and often mis-quoted) author, quietly intelligent, ready to question himself, capable of holding in his mind and elucidating for the reader ideas more complex than a one-line slogan. Worth reading whatever your political propensity.

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations – one school at a time, Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin.
(Auto)biography, 338 pages. Climbing enthusiast, who after injury was nursed back to health by a Pakistani village, promised to return and build them a school – which he has done and then done again in other villages – 55 times in the heartland of Taliban activity. I’m glad the world has such people in it – though he would be difficult to live with (another encouraging thought – being irritating does not keep us from being useful).

Out of Poverty: what works when traditional approaches fail, Paul Polack.
How to end poverty, 232 pages.  Chapter titles tell the story -- Learning to do the simple & obvious  -- 12 steps to practical problem solving -- 3 great poverty eradication myths -- It all starts with making more money -- Design for the other 90 percent -- From subsistence to new income -- Affordable small-plot irrigation -- A new agriculture for 1-acre farms -- Creating vibrant new markets that serve poor customers -- Slums: incubators for new income opportunities. His ideas sound practical, realistic  and alive to me.

Stoneheart, Charlie Fletcher.
YA fantasy adventure set in modern London, 450 pages.  One boy, troubled over his father’s death, sets off a season of peril as he becomes aware of the usually unseen movements of statues and gargoyles throughout the city. There is a sequel, Ironhand, which was not quite as gripping, but that may have been the difference between reading it to oneself and hearing it read really wonderfully by a gifted English actor who did all the voices just right. 

A New England Town: The First Hundred Years: Dedham, Massachusetts, 1636-1736, Kenneth A. Lockridge.
History of a Massachusetts town established as a Puritan utopian society, 220 pages. Fascinating glimpse of very real long ago founders (our ancestors among them) who reveal themselves to be surprisingly contemporary and understandable as they face unexpected problems with their best-laid plans.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver.
Locavoring memoir, 370 pages. This year-in-the-life-of will likely become the bible of the locavore movement (eat what grows only within a 100 miles of home). The writing reminds me more of her unsatisfying Prodigal Summer than of her other much greater books. I’ve come across most of her ideas before, more freshly, in Real Food, etc., and Kingsolver’s unusually ideal farm-access doesn’t give me much inspiration for my own situation, but the book’s worth reading if the locavore idea is new to you and the writing, though less than exciting, is highly accessible.  And she chose a great title.

Eat to Live: The Revolutionary Formula to Fast and Sustained Weight-Loss, Joel Fuhrman, M.D.
Nutrition, 292 pages.  Health = Nutrients/ Calories. This doctor advises increasing nutrient-density.  Which means a 90% emphasis on “natural plant foods” (beans and greens, yellow and orange vegetables, whole grains, fruits, starchy vegetables, seeds and nuts), and the remaining 10% or so from animal and other sources. He shrugs off the organic argument and doesn’t think different oils make much difference. I wouldn’t chapter-and-verse him and think his menus look unappetizing, but have found the basic outline (fruit for brek, salad with beans for lunch, and at dinner include a salad and two cooked veg with your meat or beans) a healthful and streamlined way to make meals that satisfy without being overly caloric.

The World is Flat: a brief history of the 21st century, Thomas L. Friedman.
Economic observation and philosophy, 639 pages.  Focusing especially on globalization: its environmental, social and political drawbacks, as well as its individual and social opportunities and achievements.

alphabet, Inger Christensen, translated from Danish by Susannah Nied.
Booklength, pre-apocalyptic poem structured around the alphabet and the Fibonacci sequence, 77 pages. A “plea an ordinary plea” to live on this earth in our “real real world” and not to destroy nor bring to an end all that exists: “eider ducks, spiders and vinegar exist: and the future, the future.” The English translation is psalmlike in its rhythms and powerfully straightforward.

Everlost, Neal Shusterman.
YA fantasy, 313 pages. This romp through an alternate afterworld examines the ideas of fear and ambition and true love, and does so with an almost mythic sensibility.

Wooden Fish Songs, Ruthanne Lum McCunn.
Biographical novel of the father of the Florida citrus industry and groundbreaking hybridizer – Lue Gim Gong, 385 pages. Told in the voices of three women: his haunted mother in China; the stubbornly myopic New England missionary who became his mentor; and the feisty woman (daughter of freed slaves) who with her husband are Lue’s assistants and partners. Lue, a generous, intelligent man, remains a benign mystery – the disappearing point of origin that connects three otherwise disparate realities.

Sailing Alone Around the Room, Billy Collins.
Poetry, 171 pages.  Lucid and witty and very (!) funny, with every so often surprising depth of feeling. See also The Trouble with Poetry, 88 pages.

Daniel Plainway; or the Holiday Haunting of the Moosepath League, Van Reid.
Novel, set in Maine just after the War between the States, 385 pages.  Like others in the series - Mollie Peer (336 pages), Mrs. Roberto (339 pages), Fiddler's Green (300 pages) - simply fun, refreshingly innocent tale, full of Maine folklore and local history, with a large cast of likable characters loosely shaped around solving a mystery. As always goodness and kindness prevail, but this third book is the best of the Moosepath League bunch. Another book of Reid’s, Peter Loon (298 pages), historical adventure in post Revolutionary Maine and more mysterious in mood, is told only from the main character’s point of view: a young backwoods man who comes to age at his father’s death when he ventures forth into a world more perilous and populated than he would have thought. 

The Gospel of Food: everything you think you know about food is wrong, Barry Glasner.
Nutritional history, 228 pages.  This USC sociologist argues engagingly that nutritional research is largely inconclusive and contradictory and that we should eat a wide variety of fresh food for the taste and joy of it and avoid fads and food dogma.  Really there’s more to this book, though, than diet advice – an enlightening historical overview of the laughable “evil foods” of past generations, stories of great (also horrible) meals at top restaurants and days hanging out in the kitchens of top chefs, food adventurers seeking the most authentic ethnic tastes, a defense (or at least a new view) of McDonald’s and foodie-snobbery, feeding the hungry, so-called miracle foods, food purity and GMOs. His last subheading: Eat and Let Eat.

Friday, January 19, 2007

2007 - Best Books of the Year

Coming Home Crazy: an alphabet of China essays, Bill Holm
Travel memoir, 259 pages.  A collection of essays by a non-Chinese speaking Minnesotan Icelander living and teaching in Xi-an for a year. I like his writing. I like his barreling-forward, embracing, optimistic feistiness.
Amethyst Road, Louise Spiegler
YA fiction, alternate realty, inspired by Rom culture, 336 pages.  An intelligent, courageous and moral young woman who works to save her young niece, while finding her place among her own people and in the world at large. It’s a great story—appealing characters, gritty hardships and believable courage - inspiriting and thought-provoking.
Iron and Silk, Mark Salzman
Travel memoir, 211 pages. Salzman didn’t go to China wanting to “save” or “lift” the Chinese—he didn’t particularly want to go to modern China—which he saw as a “huge penal colony.” But he needed a job for a year. On the other hand, he’s a longtime martial arts practitioner and loved and studied classical Chinese literature at Yale. He’s something of a clown, shorter than most Chinese, and his unique preparation meant he went to China more as a pupil than a teacher. As a result, his experiences are warmer, more reciprocal, most human.
Room to Fly: A Transcultural Memoir, Padma Hejmadi
Autobiography of a childhood in southern India within a culture with a non-written language, 202 pages. Beautiful writing. I especially like the haunting story of her aunt and the discussion of language and music.
Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier
Novel, 356 pages. A wounded Dixie soldier’s odyssey home to his true love. A sheltered belle’s awaking to self-reliance. Searching for paradise, a lost home, that mystical mountain. Love, courage, and exquisite writing.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling
YA fantasy novel, 7th and final of the series, 759 pages. Okay, she hooked me. The seven books of this publishing phenomenon are not really a series after all, but one long book that must be read in its entirety. The final book is tightly plotted and masterful, majestic even, in its arrival—though that climax, along with its high moral purpose, needs the long building-up through all the other entertaining books to get us there, eager to find out what finally happens and caring immensely about many different and very human characters.

Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado, Marc Aronson
Historical narrative for mid-teens on up, 222 pages. We read it aloud—vigorous sentences, meaty stories, intelligent and well-balanced history of the first colonization of America through the life of Ralegh and his political and personal triumphs and tragedies. I so admire this book and look forward to his others—John Winthrop, Oliver Cromwell and the Land of Promise and The Real Revolution: A Global History of American Independence.
Gardening under Cover: a Northwest guide to solar greenhouses, cold frames, and cloches, William Head.
Northwest, cold-weather gardening, 135 pages. Great guide to building cold frames and tunnel cloches—clear step-by-step directions, useful diagrams, variety of methods.
Winter Gardening for the Maritime Northwest: cool-season crops for the year-round gardener, Binda Colebrook.
Northwest, cold-weather gardening, 163 pages.  I love how nonfiction books tell it all in their titles. Book by British Columbian gardener—she’s sensible and down to earth and very encouraging, with useful lists of vegetables and culture requirements.
Gaia’s Garden: a guide to home scale permaculture, Toby Hemenway.
Northwest permaculture, 222 pages.  Organic, sustainable forest gardens) for the temperate north by an Oregon author. Clearly written with useful diagrams and pictures, approachable style.
Oaxaca Journal, Oliver Sacks.
Travel journal, 159 pages. Celebrated psychologist (author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) travels in Mexico with some fellow fern-enthusiasts. Delightful to be in the presence of this curious and gentle intelligence.
The Nine Tailors: changes rung on an old theme in two short touches and two full peals, Dorothy Sayers.
Mystery set in East Anglia between the wars, 331 pages. A masterpiece of evocative spareness with real depth of feeling. Lord Peter Wimsey takes a back seat to the East Anglian countryside and its wide-ranging characters—each standing out vividly in the clear, watery light.
The World to Come, Dara Horn.
Novel, 314 pages. A brother and sister, twins, the progeny of Jews who suffered in the pogroms of Eastern Europe. A painting by Chagall. Finding true love. Finding courage. And the afterlife (maybe).
Real Food: What to Eat and Why, Nina Planck.
Nutrition, 343 pages. A popularization of the research by Weston Price (Nutrition and Physical Degeneration) and Sally Fallon and Mary Enig (Nourishing Traditions: the cookbook that challenges politically correct nutrition and the diet dictocrats), as well as a personal account of growing up eating homegrown vegetables, home-raised milk and meat and eggs and then becoming a vegetarian with unexpectedly unpleasant results. In a nutshell: avoid industrial food. Eat real (as close to homegrown as possible) veg - in all the colors of the rainbow - and fruit; whole grains; olive oil, coconut oil - and for cooking: organic butter, lard, duck and beef fat; whole organic milk and eggs, organic meat, fish, dark chocolate. The research looks impressive and the recommendations seem sensible.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

2006 - Best Books of the Year

The Saddlebag, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani.
Inter-linked stories of a caravan beset by sandstorm and vicious bandits, 263 pages. Each new voice reveal a crossroads of cultures and religions and approaches to God in one day of travelling between 19th century Mecca and Medina. These stories are as if they have always been there. I keep thinking about them.

An Area of Darkness, V.S. Naipaul.
Autobiography, 304 pages. Born and raised in Trinidad, Naipaul seeks his ancestral India. The writing is beautiful, his failures to find his way home revealed unflinchingly. He is not fair, but his words throb with conviction.

From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet, Vikram Seth.
Autobiography, 192 pages. Seth makes his way home to India from China, hitch-hiking with hard-bitten Chinese truckers, travelling into and through the not-yet-known with a ready heart, an observant eye and the elegant ease of a poet’s voice.

A Goddess in the Stones: Travels in India, Norman Lewis.
Travel in tribal, caste-free India by an aging Englishman, 336 pages. How much is what he wishes were so? how much is true? The tribal women he describes are ruggedly independent and joyously alive.

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie.
Allegorical novel of India's independence from Britain, 506 pages. Playful, passionate pyrotechnics—the words matter more than the characters who are only masks, after all, for the author’s multivalent voice,but the history and reality behind it all matters even more — reminiscent of Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man, another great allegory of a young nation’s soul.

1491: New Revelations on the Americas before Columbus, Charles C. Mann.
History/ Archaeology, 560 pages. Evidence for much vaster, more complex and advanced cultures than we are often taught in school existed on the American continents before Columbus. Scholarly respect for evidence, offered in a lucid, fast-paced writing style.

Mysteries of the Alphabet: the Origins of Writing, Marc-Alain Ouaknin, translated from the French by Josephine Bacon.
History and interpretation of the pictorial symbols we use as our alphabet so blithely and unaware, 384 pages. Light-heartedly wacky towards the end but enjoyable throughout and a true pleasure to look at and to hold in the hand. Includes drawings and large fonts.

The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, David Abram.
Philosophy / Alphabet/ Cultural critique, 352 pages. Says an Amazon review: “Abram's writing casts a spell of its own as he weaves the reader through a meticulously researched work that gently addresses such seemingly daunting topics as where the past and future exist, the relationship between space and time, and how the written word serves to sever humans from their primordial source of sustenance: the earth.” And I couldn't say better.

Not Your Mother’s Slow-cooker Cookbook, Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann.
Obviously, 520 pages. An emphasis on fresh food made as much as possible from scratch. Great for the (too) many afternoons I have chauffeur duty almost up until dinnertime. Good results so far.

Before the Flood: The Biblical Flood as a Real Event and How It Changed the Course of Civilization, Ian Wilson.
Archaeology, 352 pages. Evidence in the Black Sea of a major flood around 5600 B.C. as a result of melting Ice Age glaciers and rising sea levels in the Mediterranean. Posits an earlier Black Sea (Catal Huyk) culture whose traces can be found in later civilizations. Very readable and from all accounts responsible with the evidence, though plenty of engaging speculation.

The Knox Brothers, Penelope Fitzgerald.
Biography of Fitzgerald’s father and three uncles—all accomplished and prominent men of letters, 304 pages.  Written with all the understated, vibrant virtues of her exquisite novels. Affectionate, intelligent, principled and honest family—I enjoyed every moment in their company.

Angelina’s Children, Alice Ferney, translated from the French by Emily Read.
Novel, 275 pages. A friendship grows between the matriarch of a gypsy clan and a young librarian who comes to entice the children into reading. A living book.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: A Novel, Susanna Clarke.
Fantasy novel set in 18th century England, 800 pages. The world of this book is as if Jane Austen had wandered out on the Brontes’ moor and gotten lost in a parallel England where magic is as real as tea. Fun, light reading.

Thanksgiving 101, Rick Rodgers.
Cookbook, 165 pages. Reliably good, mostly traditional recipes (not lo-cal)—the lemon ginger cranberry chutney is mahvelous.

The Taste of the Season: Inspired Recipes for Fall and Winter, Diane Rossen Worthington.
Cookbook, 179 pages. The apple-pear-dried cherry crisp is beyond wonderful. Braised spinach with leeks and roasted garlic and Autumn salad with persimmons and pomegranates opened my eyes to new possibilities for everyday deliciousness. I’m eager to try more.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

2005 - Best Books of the Year

Fast Vegetarian Feasts, Martha Rose Shulman
Cookbook. Reliably edible recipes. 368 pages.

366 Delicious Ways to Cook Rice, Beans, and Grains, Andrea Chesman
Cookbook. Focuses as much on deliciousness as wholesomeness. “French Country White Beans” with lemon peel and fresh sage is the best so far. 480 pages.

Bones: Discovering the First Americans, Elaine Dewar
Archaeology. Investigative reporter from Toronto lets active archaeologists tell their own paradigm-shifting stories of the newest discoveries about the oldest Americans - a much more interesting story than the picture I got as a schoolgirld of wandering tribes following the caribou/ buffalo and teepees on the prairie. 628 pages.

The Wandering Scholars of the Middle Ages, Helen Waddell. (1932)
Essays, historical literary criticism. To delight in such obscure words (medieval Latin poets, etc.) and to communicate that delight so many years later is the gift of this passionate and astute British scholar. I would have loved to have been in her classes. 364 pages.

By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion, Terryl L. Givens.
Early 19th century American history. He doesn’t lie and he doesn’t cheat. I am grateful to him for what is an intelligent man’s testimony of his faith. 336 pages.

The Goose Girl, Shannon Hale
YA novel. A more mature evocation of true marriage you can rarely find (YA or even for full-grown adults) than in this fairytale adaptation. 400 pages.

Greensleeves, Eloise Jarvis McGraw.
Novel. A college girl in Portland, Oregon, early 1960’s, trying to decide how to live her life. Light, enjoyable. It’s hasn’t been republished since 1968—too bad! Look for it in the library. 311 pages.

The Lost Chronicles of the Maya King, David Drew
History. Two different Mayan empires—an “international one” in the north, in contact with Toltec and Mexica cultures, and a more isolationist, conservative one in the south. New archaeology and decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphics. 461 pages.

Emma, Persuasion, and Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen
Novel. Some books are endlessly re-readable. Like these three by Austen. 416, 288, and 352 pages, respectively.

Middlemarch, George Eliot
Novel. Another classic re-read tells the story of a whole village and the hearts of men and women. 880 pages.

Inkheart, Cornelia Funke, translated from the German by Anthea Bell
Novel. Absorbingly imaginative, for older children. A truly evil villain and the quiet valor of a family with the amazing ability to bring books to life. 544 pages. (also Inkspell and Dragonrider (which YoungSon adores)

Children of Summer: Henri Fabre's Insects, Margaret J. Anderson, pictures by Marie LeGlatin Keis.
Children’s bio-novel told in the voice of the famous entomologist’s 10-year-old son. Magical and evocative, tightly based on fact. Read this book aloud to a elementary-aged child and watch the wonder dawn in their eyes. 100 pages.

City Making and Urban Governance in the Americas: Curitiba and Portland, Clara Irazabal.
Compares the environmental successes of Curitiba, Brazil, and Portland, Oregon. Scholarly and very interesting. 335 page

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

2004 - Best Books of the Year

Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation Of Language And Music And Why We Should, Like, Care, John McWhorter
Cultural critique. Witty and insightful, McWhorter, an African-American professor at Berkeley and acclaimed linguist, pinpoints 1967 as a watershed shift from classical education to multi-culti relevance. 304 pages.

One More River to Cross (Standing on the Promises, Book 1), Margaret Young & Aidan Darius Grey.
Historical novel with foot-notes. Early Latter-day Saints who faced slavery, prejudice, and unfairness at the hands of their European-descent brothers and sisters, even within the church they loved. Opened my eyes and, I hope, my heart. 337 pages. (2 other books in series as well.)

Black Athena: the Afro-asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization vol 1, Martin Bernal
Non-fiction (though some critics would disagree). A rewriting of ancient classical history—the African and Hebrew roots of Greek traditions. Interesting thesis and engaging writing—I also enjoyed the insight into the quarrelling of academic life. 575 pages.

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry
Novel of India, a story of life in this world. I have rarely loved characters so dearly. Makes me question the foundations of the life worth living and fills me with a deep courage to try better to face horrors with the power of my human heart. 624 pages.

The Dancing Bear, Peter Dickinson.
Historical novel. The fall of Byzantium, a boy and a girl and a dancing bear. We can’t decide which of the three is our favorite character. The boy is kind and learns to be strong, the girl is brave and learns to love, the bear is wholly bear. There is also a Byzantine monk turned missionary, wild Huns, villages of Slavs and the last descendant of a Roman aristocrat. A beautiful book and worth the effort to hunt it down. 300-ish pages

The Year 1000 : What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, Danny Danziger and Robert Lacey.
History. Month-by-month, illustrated with drawings from the medieval Julius Work Calendar, a lively examination of daily life in the year 1000. We read it aloud and we all enjoyed it—did skip reading aloud for one section about medieval sexuality—not particularly offensive, just not appropriate for a read-aloud to preteens and a preschooler. 240 pages.

Monday, January 15, 2007

***Books that Mistakenly Missed the List***

The Brandons and Cheerfulness Breaks In, Angela Thirkell.
Novels. There are more than a score of these comic chronicles of Barsetshire, an imaginary county in England. My favorites are set before WWII. 368 and 188 pages.

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy.
Novel. Each re-reading delivers fresh delights. A book for a good long summer read and I wouldn’t cut any part of it. Also Anna Karenina—even better now than when I read it in high school. These are easy reads, never mind how long they are. Living, breathing characters and accessible plots. It's probably about time for me to re-read this again . . . and again . . . 1472 and 976 pages.

Colour in the Winter Garden, Graham Stuart Thomas.
Non-fiction. A notable British gardener who writes as beautifully as his gardens must grow. You don’t need pictures to see the plants he describes. 256 pages.

Home Economics, Wendell Berry
Essays about how to live on the earth. I’ve loved this book from the moment I found it in the university bookstore and spent an afternoon reading it on the stairway in the humanities building. And I love it now. 192 pages

Colcorton, Edith Pope.
A forgotten novel about race and the meaning of house, set in the early 20th century South. Images of this book—hunting in the storm, walking from the broken veranda into the overgrown garden—still stay in my mind. 330 pages.

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson.
A novel set in northern Idaho about the nature of home. Truly magical writing. A hauntingly evocative book. 219 pages

Moby Dick, Herman Melville.
Immense prose-poem about the nature of reality? Allegory of the new American nation? Adventure tale about hunting whale? Which is it? This book has shaped the way I think about my nation. An essential text for me. 704 pages.

The Neverending Story, Michael Ende.
Deep and believable children’s fantasy. 384 pages.

The Railway Children, E. Nesbit.
Children’s novel. Nesbit wrote wonderful fantastical literature for children in the early 1900’s. This is one of my favorites. My girls like Wet Magic and The Enchanted Castle. 288 pages.

The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease.
A great argument for reading aloud and an even better list of great books to start a personal children’s library. 432 pages.


beloved picture books:

Nancy Hoberman, A House is the House for Me, Seven Silly Eaters

Charlotte Zolotow, Mr. Rabbit & the Lovely Present, I Like Being Little, When I Have a Little Girl

Else Minarik, all the Little Bear books (and Signourey Weaver’s lovely tape reading these)

Russell Hoban, all the Frances books( Glynis Jones’ audio recording is a delight!)

Mem Fox, Wilfrid Gordon MacDonald Partridge, Koala Lou I do Love You, Whoever You Are

Roy Gerrard, The Favershams, Rosie and the Rustlers, Sir Cedric

Mercer Mayer, East of the Sun & West of the Moon, Beauty & the Beast, Liza Lou & the Yeller Belly Swamp

Kevin Henkes, Lily and the Purple Plastic Purse, Julian the Baby of the World

Caralyn Buehner, Fanny’s Dream (a gem about true happily ever afters!)

Robert Munsch, The Paperbag Princess

Joanne Oppenheim, Have You Seen Trees?

Eugene Trivizas, The Three Little Wolves and the Big, Bad Pig

Dr. Seuss, The Lorax (my favorite as a child), also Mr. Brown Can Moo, and ABC

Tomie de Paola, The Clown of God, Strega Nona

Margaret Wise Brown, The Color Kittens, Pussy Willow, The Important Book, The Quiet Book, Mister Dog, The Sailor Dog, Home for a Bunny, The Little Island

poetry anthologies for children:

Come Hither, collected by Walter de la Mare

My Kind of Verse, compiled by John Smith

The Wind and the Rain, edited by John Hollander and Harold Bloom

All the Silver Pennies, edited by Blanche Jennings Thompson

This Same Sky: a collection of Poems from around the World, edited by Naomi Shihab Nye

Sunday, January 14, 2007

2003 - Best Books of the Year

I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother, Allison Pearson
A novel I almost never read because it looked too predictably PC. Surprisingly sweet tale of being a mother and a woman, set in modern London. 352 pages.

The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars, Stephen O’Shea
Medieval history. A gripping story of a believing people in Southern France who were destroyed by the pope’s crusade against them. One of the villains, Simon de Montfort, was one of our ancestors - always such a delight to discover that you carry in your veins the DNA of someone who had all the men of a village blinded, leaving only one man with one eye, as well as ordering his soldiers to chop an arm off their prisoners - both arms from the one-eyed man - leaving them just enough physical equipment that they could walk bleedingly back through the mountains to their home village, arm on the shoulder of the one ahead of them, led by the man with one eye? Does it make it better or worse to know that Simon and his wife were uncommonly devoted to one another? - he was famously monogamous. 224 pages.

Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities and Meaning of Table Manners, Margaret Visser.
The title says it all. Pleasantly readable writing. 448 pages.

Rescuing Patty Hearst: Memories from a Decade Gone Mad, Virginia Holman (reissued in 2004 as Rescuing Patty Hearst: Growing Up Sane in a Decade Gone Mad)
Autobiography of a daughter growing up with a schizophrenic mother. But that makes it sound sensationalist and voyeuristic and it’s not. What is a family? This book calls forth some revelatory answers. 256 pages.

Captain Correlli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
Beautifully human novel of the effects of war on a Greek island. Courage, love, tragedy, death and disappointment. But life and joy have a way of outlasting everything else. 448 pages.

The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, Jessie Wise & Susan Wise Bauer
Homeschool guide. Beautifully and ambitiously thorough. A great help. 800 pages.

The Wanderings of Odysseus, Rosemary Sutcliff.
We loved this illustrated retelling which stays very close to Homer’s Odyssey. Black Sails before Troy, a retelling of the Iliad, was also enjoyable, though bloody. Gorgeous pictures. 120 pages.

Warrior Scarlet and Mark of the Horse Lord, Rosemary Sutcliff.
Ancient British historical novels, gripping and sometimes heartbreaking stories of courage. Best for older children, great read-alouds. 207 & 289 pages.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon.
In this tenderly wry novel, an autistic 15-year-old boy who cannot understand lies, solves more mysteries than the one he sets out to investigate about his neighbor’s dead dog. 240 pages.

John Adams, David McCullough
A great biography of a good man. Gave me hope for this nation to see the squabbles from which it arose. We just need a few more good people. 736 pages.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

2002 - Best Books of the Year

The Life of the Bee, Maurice Maeterlinck, translated from the French by Alfred Sutro.
A naturalist’s poem in prose by a gifted Belgian playwright. The details of close attention, a philosophy of life based on the natural parable offered by the bees. 427 pages.

alpha beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World, John Man.
A history of the alphabet. Fascinating facts wittily written. 312 pages.

One Year Off: Leaving it All Behind for a Round-the-World Journey with Our Children, David Elliot Cohen.
Made me want to travel like this too. 312 pages.

The Secret Adversary, Agatha Christie.
Mystery. Anything by Agatha is a treat, thanks to her felicitous storytelling. But this is one of the best — the light-hearted thriller where Tommy and Tuppence first meet. 426 pages.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslovakia, Rebecca West.
Travel/ History. As wonderfully wonderful as this Eastertide Balkan journey is I despair of ever getting anyone else to read it because it is so long—nearly as long as War & Peace. But so good. Rebecca West is not fair-minded. She is the gallant champion of the more gallant Serbs and Croats and Bosnians—writing like an angel back on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe and the false dawn of a new Yugoslavia. History and prophecy, all in one. As rich as a novel, as intense as a poem. I’ve read it twice already. 1181 pages.

Italian Vegetarian Cooking, Emanuela Stucchi.
Cookbook. Vegetables approached with restrained elegance and simplicity. Plus we like the food that results.

The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton.
Essays. The first chapter is especially magical. A thoughtful exploration of what it means to travel and why we do it. 272 pages.

Kershisnik: Painting from Life, Leslie Norris, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Mark Magleby and Brian Kershisnik.
Biography and reproductions of my favorite Utah painter. Library Journal: “an exploration of the work of a particularly gifted artist. Kershisnik works in a small Utah town, creating images of people in quiet, evocative moments of their lives. With wry humor, he paints young musicians asleep in a landscape, three girls watching a fourth fly an unseen kite, and a child cavorting delightedly in a graveyard. His style calls on Chagall, Blake's mysticism, and the portraitists of the Renaissance.” Yup. 128 pages.

Friday, January 12, 2007

2001 - Best Books of the Year

The Country of the Pointed Firs and other stories, Sarah Orne Jewett.
Stories of New England, latter half of the 1800’s. Spare and clear, the colors of the sea—with that hidden depth. Lives of a decency we have too easily abandoned. 269 pages.

The Alphabet versus the Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image, Leonard Shalin (British Museum giftshop)
Don’t know that I agree with his clear-cut dichotomy of word/linear/violent/ exclusionary vs. image/holistic/peace-loving/inclusive, but made me think. 464 pages.

The Pursuit of Paradise: A Social History of Gardens and Gardening, Jane Brown (Kew Gardens giftshop)
Lucid and enjoyably informative history of European gardens from medieval times until now. 400 pages.

The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, Brian Greene
Clearly and engagingly written. Modern science for the general reader. 448 pages.

The Red Tent, Anita Diamant
An imaginative retelling of the life of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob. The ending is a little strained, but it’s an enjoyable read. 321 pages.

Homecoming: Earthfall, Orson Scott Card (also Memory of, Call of, & Ships of Earth)
The Homecoming Series is Card’s meditation on and interpretation of the First Book of Nephi. I can’t believe I read this book. I can’t believe I liked it so well. Spiritually moving in some of the best parts. Picked it up as a bargain book in the HighSchool Pharmacy rack (along with a book called The Zarahemla Vision—a lurid whodunit based in Salt Lake City, highly objectionable (mis)use of Native Americans and those exotic Mormons for local color, but also a hoot to read). 350 pages.

Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House, Cheryl Mendelson.
I wished so hard for this book that someone finally wrote it. Keeping house is as repetitive as any powerful ritual. The drudgery comes only through inattention and confusion. This book, more than just a how-to, though excelling at that, is incredibly intelligent and thorough. 884 pages.

Jacobson’s Organ and the Remarkable Nature of Smell, Lyall Watson
Lively writing. I never knew I knew so much through smell. 255 pages.

The Secret of Platform 13, Eva Ibbotson.
I liked it better than Harry Potter—children’s fantasy. 250 pages.

Invincible Louisa, Cornelia Meigs
Eminently readable biography of Louisa May Alcott, written for children but universally readable. 256 pages.

Passage, Connie Willis
Two researchers try to find out what happens at the very end of life, foiled at almost every turn by a schmaltzy, self-promoting colleague. Casually witty and thought-provoking—this novel works its way quietly into your heart. 800 pages.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is another Willis book inadvertently left off this list in earlier years. Time travelers retrieve valuable historical objects just before they are destroyed — to avoid incongruities that would shred the space-time continuum. A comic gem. 434 pages.

Strong Poison, Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon, all three by Dorothy Sayers.
The witty Lord Peter Wimsey’s pursuit of a strong-minded woman, Harriet Vane. Wimsey is a lion-hearted fop and a keen-minded dabbler in private investigation something in the tradition of The Scarlet Pimpernel (that’s another great story, by Baroness Orczy). 272, 512, and 416 pages, respectively.

Villette, Charlotte Bronte
Villette is a sadder and more poignant book than Jane Eyre. 672 pages.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

2000 - Best Books of the Year

The Poetics of Space: the classic look at how we experience intimate places, Gaston Bachelard, translated from the French by Maria Jolas
As evocative as Le Grand Meaulnes (a beautiful French novel by Alain Fourier) but more cerebral. A book of philosophy about what makes a home, it sets the mind dreaming. 241 pages.

Water: A Natural History, Alice Outwater
How water and our views and use of it have shaped America. 212 pages.

Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, William Bryant Logan
A collection of meditative, rhapsodic essays about . . . dirt. Better than you would ever imagine. 202 pages.

Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Michael Pollan
Meditation, gardening autobiography, social history and, in the end, a call to accept the responsibility of active stewardship over our piece of earth. 258 pages.

Gardening and Beyond, Florence Bellis
An old hippy, raising primroses on the Oregon Coast, writes about “soil families,” gives gardening advice, & recounts the history of horticulture. A delight. 178 pages.

Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl, translated from the German by Ilse Lasch
Reread during pregnancy for courage to bring another soul into this world. Frankl’s strength survives his experience in the Nazi concentration camps. 196 pages.

The Rings of Saturn, W.B. Sebald, translated from the German by Michael Hulse
Dreamy, strange and haunting. A German who has moved to England takes a walking tour of East Anglia. If only I could write so well. 296 pages.

Designing with Plants, Piet Oudolf with Noel Kingsbury
A Dutch plantsman writes about the grasses and meadow flowers that make up his garden. Mystical, almost melancholy garden pictures, but also dramatic and deeply comforting. His ideas of gardening remind me of the ideas in Christopher Alexander’s Timeless Way of Building. 160 pages.

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingslover
Her best book yet. A family of Baptist missionaries goes to Africa—their dissolution in the face of a reality they could not have imagined. 546 pages.

Wild Life, Mollie Gloss
Her best book yet. Set on the Washington side of the Columbia River. A frontier woman-writer raising four boys alone, the search for a lost girl, and a discovery (or is it a hallucination?). 255 pages.

The Spellcoats, Diana Wynne Jones
Best book in the Dalemark Quartet. Quasi-historically based fantasy for young adults. 249 pages.

This Same Sky: a collection of Poems from around the World, ed. Naomi Shihab Nye
Real poetry collected for children. 212 pages.

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, Lisa Delpit
Anglo-American education system, African-American students. Insightful and intelligently written. 206 pages.

The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America’s Beleaguered Moms and Dads, Cornel West and Sylvia Ann Hewlett
Thought-provoking call to arms for a new Parents’ Bill of Rights—why it’s harder to raise a family today than in the 1950’s. Insightfully marks out the problems in business, government and culture, but I can’t always agree with solutions. 302 pages.

Will You Sign Here, John Hancock?, Jean Fritz
Children’s book. Nicely-detailed, breezy recounting of the making of America. Fritz has written several of these short chapter-books making American history enjoyably accessible for school-aged children. My girls love all her books that they have read and I love them, too. Nothing is made up in these historical sketches. Fritz knows enough history to make history interesting. 47 pages.

The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice, Vaclav Havel, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson
A playwright and dissident who spent 4½ years as a political prisoner, later president of Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic. I think he is a good man. I am certain he is an intelligent one. 273 pages.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

1999 - Best Books of the Year

How Good Do We Have to Be?: A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness, Harold S. Kushner
A Rabbinic meditation on the story of the Garden of Eden. Do we have to be perfect to be lovable? 181 pages.

the beginning of spring, Penelope Fitzgerald
Mysterious, romantic tale of an English family in Russia at the turn of the century. Writing of extreme lucidity and grace, remarkable characterization and beautifully plotted. One of the best books of the decade. 187 pages.

the gate of angels, Penelope Fitzgerald
The other best book of the decade. Beautiful, beautiful book. Limpid, lucid prose. Singingly true movements of personality and plot. As true as any old folk tale, or life itself, uniquely satisfying even in the midst of mysterious inconclusiveness. Set in 1920’s Oxford. After several re-readings and reading every other book I can find by her, this is the one I return to. I love this book. 167 pages.

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, Karen Cushman
The YA story of a teenage girl who reluctantly moves out west with her widowed mother and brother and sisters. Writing has wit and conflicts and resolutions believable. Also Catherine Called Birdy by this author, about a smart stubborn girl in the Middle Ages. 195 pages.

The Towers of Trebizond, Rose Macaulay
A novel of religious belief and doubt, yearning for divine love, reluctant to give up human love to gain it. Humorous, poetic and sad. Beautiful writing. 277 pages.

Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, Steve Solomon
A finely detailed, no-nonsense how-to gardening book with a refreshingly frank world-view of responsibility, stewardship and hope. Now if I could just do it. 356 pages.

L.D.S. Hymnbook.
I wish I had learned more of the words earlier in my life. What a treasure trove of encouragement and insight.

Doom’s Day, Connie Willis
Novel. A history student at the Oxford of the future travels back into the 1300’s, ends up in the midst of the Black Plague by fate or misfortune. Meanwhile her home-time is plunged into a flu epidemic. Brought to my realization the horror of the plague. Good, thought-provoking science fiction. 456 pages.

Four-Season Harvest, Eliot Coleman
Another helpful gardening book full of ways to harvest fresh, organic foods all year around and how to adjust your diet to take into consideration the natural rhythms of the year. Someday I’ll live this way. 234 pages.

When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair: 50 Ways to Feel Thin, Gorgeous, and Happy (When you Feel Anything But), Geneen Roth
Is there a way to handle the food-thing without self-punishment? Roth thinks so. Other books by same author: Feeding the Hungry Heart and Appetites. 223 pages.

East Anglia: Essex, Suffolk & Norfolk, Peter Sager, translated from the German by David Henry Wilson
A Pallas guidebook. Truly remarkable. “Thorough and thoroughly readable” says a quote from the back cover. I have been haunting the bookstores to try to find news of his forthcoming book on Cambridgeshire ever since. A living history. 580 pages.

A Discovery of Strangers, Rudy Wiebe
Novel based on true events. Small group of British officers and Canadian voyageurs searching for the Polar Sea survive the winter only with the help of a band of Yellowknife people, including a young woman the officers name Greenstockings. A meditation on desire, jealousy, violence and survival. Poetically, powerfully written. 336 pages.

Swamp Angel, Ethel Wilson
A woman leaves a demoralizing 2nd marriage in Vancouver to cook in a fishing lodge in the interior of British Columbia. The decorum and decency of this book captured for me much of what I loved about Victoria, B.C. 224 pages.

A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, ed. Czeslaw Milosz
A collection of poems with a mystic sensibility. 320 pages.

Poet’s Choice: Poems for Everyday Life, ed. Robert Hass
Of course. 210 pages.

Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape, Robert Hart
An English classic of backyard permaculture and agroforesty. I like the character that comes through his writing and find his ideas appealing. 256 pages.

The Ends of the Earth : From Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia, a Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy, Robert Kaplan
Gritty travel-writing with an environmental focus. Mostly sad and frightening but then there is the story of Kerala, India—from which hope shines even long after reading the book. 476 pages.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

1998 - Best Books of the Year

The Tabernacle Bar, Susan Palmer
Great novel of a black sheep daughter who opens a bar in a little northern Utah town, right across from the tabernacle. The authorial voice is clear-eyed but compassionate, the heroine anything but—thank goodness — her angry courage and stubborn prickliness are what make this book priceless. 177 pages.

The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe, Arthur Koestler
An extremely readable, philosophical history of astronomy. The section on Kepler is most interesting. 624 pages.

Everyday Life in the Muslim Middle East, ed. Donna Lee Bowen and Evelyn A. Early
Essays, short stories, poetry and photographs. Most memorable for me: “Sad Songs of the Western Desert” by Lila Abu-Lughod: traditional poetry in the place of individual expression, “The Sound of the Divine in Daily Life” by Kristina Nelson: the aural power of the Koran, and “Rites of Hospitality and Aesthetics” by Anita Kanafani. Editor Bowen is at BYU in Near Eastern Studies. 352 pages.

Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey
A strange, strong, beautiful novel. Beautifully written. Intricate, realistic characters. Dark but encouraging. I am always reluctant to suggest this book because it does have one truly nightmarish scene and great sadness is in store—but it is part of the power of the book—the ability for humans to continue and to live with grace and courage despite evil. 433 pages.

Less than Angels, Jane Pym
The best of all the Pym books – ordinary life in post-war England, wittily written. This is the deepest and most human, in which the most is at stake. Though Excellent Women is also excellent. 256 pages.

The Dazzle of Day, Molly Gloss
A polluted world, the Society of Friends gathers onto a spaceship and makes the 100 year trip to a new world. Beautifully written and hopeful in the face of hard things. 254 pages.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-ya Sisterhood, Rebecca Wells
Novel about mothers and daughters in Louisiana. Cheeky, luxuriant, and cathartic. 383 pages.

The Ascent of Science, Brian L. Silver
Despite a thick-headed bias against religious belief, a very accessible history of scientific thought. Extremely readable and thoroughly grounded. Very clear explanations of complex ideas. 534 pages.

The Ginger Tree, Oswald Wynd
A young gutsy Scotswoman who faces down personal disaster in Japan in the first half of the 20th century. Richly detailed and deeply felt. 294 pages.

Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize, ed. John Hollander
The ongoing search for poems to memorize with the girls—a very nice collection. 196 pages.

The Bellwether, Connie Willis
A laugh-and-cry science novel. Fresh, inventive. A romance and an exploration of chaos. 247 pages.

Toot and Puddle, Holly Hobbie
An innocent, beautifully illustrated picture book, with charming characters and a sweet, simple story. (unpaged)

Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, Richard Brookhiser
A “moral biography” that retells the life of Washington with reverence for his integrity, his courage, and for the idea of fatherhood itself. 230 pages.

Coot Club, Arthur Ransome
Novels. Ransome (1884-1967) writes of sturdy, warm-hearted and capable children who boat in the fen country of his childhood. Deliciously detailed—the pictures, too. Also Swallows and Amazons, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, Secret Water, Winter Holiday, and others. 350 pages.

Monday, January 8, 2007

1997 - Best Books of the Year

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Geraldine Brooks
An Australian foreign correspondent in the Middle East writes with intelligence and patience and insight. 255 pages.

Within the Circle: Parents and Children in an Arab Village, Andrea B. Rugh
American anthropologist rents a room in a small Syrian village and is drawn deeply into the lives of her neighbors. 263 pages.

The Post-Capitalist Society, Paul Drucker
Economic theory, fascinating analysis of worldwide trends. Would be good to read again in a few years. 232 pages.

Human Wishes and Sun Under Wood, poems by Robert Hass
Probably the best poet writing today. 86 and 77 pages, respectively.

Come Hither, A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages, ed. Walter de la Mare.
Wonderful collection of memorizable poems—many mysterious and magical combinations of words. 777 pages.

A Good Place to Live: America’s Last Migration, Terry Pindell
Insightful exploration into what makes a community satisfying to live in. 413 pages.

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times, Elizabeth Wayland Barber
A fascinating history. Extremely well written as well as informative. 334 pages.

News from Nowhere, William Morris
A utopian novel where work is beautiful and delightful and everyone is whole. I only wish. 194 pages.

The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander
A philosophy of architectural harmony, what makes a home and a city humanly satisfying. Great black and white photos. Zen-like writing style. Wackily wonderful like a good dream. 552 pages.

The Little Virtues, Natalia Ginzburg, translated from the Italian by Dick Davis
Wonderful essays written before, during and after World War II. Exquisitely crafted and profound—what should we teach our children? This is a book I would pack with me if I had to suddenly flee. 110 pages.

Washington: The Indispensable Man, James Thomas Flexner
Though not brilliant, not even overwhelmingly successful, Washington’s principled, self-effacing dignity made the Union possible. Inspiring. 448 pages.

Divorce Among the Gulls: An Uncommon Look at Human Nature, William Jordan
A quirky, intelligent book of the not-so-unfamiliar behavior of animals. 205 pages.

The Wind and the Rain: An Anthology of Poems for Young People, ed. John Hollander
Evocative poems arranged seasonally. Lots of great Blake. 264 pages.

The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore, Hilda M. Ransome
Amazing collection of stories and beliefs about bees. 308 pages.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

1996 - Best Books of the Year

A House of Many Rooms: a Family Memoir, Rodello Hunter
An autobiography written for a general YA audience about growing up in Heber, Utah at the beginning of the century. 240 pages.

Cries of Swimmers and Snow on Snow, Maura Stanton
Two slim collections of poems—Utah writer. I recognize the world she describes.

Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, Jan Shipps
Sympathetic, even-handed non-member author, especially interesting is her discussion of architectural symbolism. 211 pages.

America’s Saints: The Rise of Mormons to Power, Robert Gottlieb and Peter Wiley
Authors both non-Mormons, mostly even-handed treatment, discussion of the growth of the Mormon church, especially in the Salt Lake Valley. 280 pages.

Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail, Wallace Stegner
Unromaniticized, entertaining stories of the travel across the plains by one of the Western US's best writers. 331 pages.

Mormon Sisters, ed. Claudia Bushman
Collection of essays about early Mormon women. 336 pages.

History of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, Susa Young Gates
As the title says—but the real treat is the individual sketches of the several women leaders, all written by Susa herself (daughter of Brigham) in her own distinctive, capable, opinionated voice. A heavy tome.

Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Mormons, Leonard Arrington
Very clearly written. Interesting as history, enjoyable as story. 566 pages.

My Love Affair with England, Susan Allen Toth
A memoir of travelling in England. Very human and vulnerable as well as informative. 320 pages

Sisters in Spirit: Mormon women in Historical and Cultural Perspective, ed. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson
Collection of essays about Mormon women from several points of view. Great black and white Andersen photos of early Springville women. 304 pages.

Sister Saints, ed. Vicky Burgess Olson
Collection of essays focused on individual early Mormon women. Fills in the blanks of Mormon history. Encouraging to know about these good women. 494 pages.

All the Silver Pennies, ed. Blanche Jennings Thompson
Classic 1967 anthology of 20th–century poems for children. 242 pages.

Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
Hilarious send-up of D.H. Lawrence’s novels. Young London-bred woman brings civilized happiness to a tortured, raw and primal farming family. 307 pages.

A Long Fatal Love Chase, Louisa May Alcott
A very satisfyingly melodramatic novel of pursuit and tragedy and true love. This must have been the book Jo first wrote—too bad she didn’t write more. 242 pages.

Wives and Daughters: An Every-day Story, Elizabeth Gaskell
An extremely satisfying novel about a young girl growing up in 19th century England. 684 pages.

Onward and Upward in the Garden, Katherine S. White
A collection of gardening essays that appeared first in the New Yorker. 361 pages.

Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from her Father’s Harem through the Islamic Revolution, Sattareh Farman-Farmaian with Dona Munker
Autobiography of Iranian woman who was the first social worker in her country, written to explain to her daughter her life and her continuing love for her country, despite having had to live in the US as an exile. A powerful and intelligent woman. 404 pages.

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph J. Ellis
Extremely readable and intelligent analysis of a fascinating man. 365 pages.

William Morris: A Life for our Time, Fiona MacCarthy
Biography of a lovable, long-suffering, highly principled man. I love this book. 780 pages.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

1995 - Best Books of the Year

Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible, ed. Christina Buchman and Celina Spiegel
A collection of essays responding to, playing with, answering, questioning different stories in the Bible, arranged in chronological order. 351 pages.

Dakota: A Spiritual Biography, Kathleen Norris
One of the writers featured in the book above, Norris writes about returning to live in her grandmother’s house in South Dakota after living in New York. 232 pages.

Little Girls in Church, Kathleen Norris
Poems by the same author. Accessible, thoughtful. 79 pages.

The Serpent’s Gift, Helen Elaine Lee
A novel following the lives of a contemporary Afro-American family. Best-written book I’ve read for a long time. Lyrical, humorous, heart-wrenching. (Didn’t shine as bright on the second reading. Wonder why? I’ll have to try it again.) 374 pages.

Overcoming Co-Dependency through the Elimination of Human Relations: The Mildly Depressed Person’s Guide to Daily Living, Mona Lovejoy and Sunny Knight (actually, Donlu Thayer and Patricia Pelissie)
A very funny book about dejunking your life—starting with anyone who makes demands on you. Tongue-in-cheek. 128 pages.

The Ramsay Scallop, Frances Temple
A young adult novel about going on pilgrimage in the medieval ages. A thinking book with action and romance as well. 310 pages.

The Taste of Salt, Frances Temple
Another YA novel by the same author, this one about two young people in Aristide’s Haiti. Courage and idealism. 179 pages.

The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes
Postmodern literary theory that actually demonstrates the Pleasure-principle of reading through its pleasurable writing. 80 pages.

Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture, Joanna Hubbs
Ethnographic, historical, and literary study of the central role of the myth of “Mother Russia” in the history of Russian culture from prehistory to the present. 324 pages.

The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, Harold Bloom
Bloom, among other things, sees Joseph Smith as the most fully developed genius of the American religion. A stimulating read. 288 pages.

Old Turtle, Douglas Wood
A picture book about God and the earth. Made me cry with its insistence that people are sent to the earth as a message and blessing and not as a disease. (unpaged)
(1995 continued)

Words under the Words, Naomi Shihab Nye
Probably my favorite book of poems. A passionate, compassionate, original take on life. 157 pages.

October Palace, Jane Hirschfield
Rich, exotic poems. 93 pages.

Haste, Lisa Orme Bickmore
Understated poems reflecting a life along the Wasatch. 64 pages.

The Man who was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton
A philosophical novellette, highly humorous, about the nature of God. 198 pages. Also any of the Father Brown mysteries.

My Name is Sus5an Smith: The 5 is Silent, Louise Plummer
An amazingly good YA novel about a teenage girl growing up in Springville, Utah, who comes of age in her painting and her approach to life when she goes to live with her aunt in New York. 217 pages.

The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman, Louise Plummer
Another hilarious YA novel by the same author. 183 pages.

Life after God, Douglas Coupland
A collection of short stories that function like a meditation on the horrors and beauties of life and ultimately on our reliance on God—but in a very Xer sort of way. 368 pages

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, Douglas Coupland
This is the novel of my generation of twenty-somethings. Details a set of anxieties more like the private places in my head than I would have thought possible. 183 pages.

Making Peace: Personal Essays, Eugene England
A collection of thoughtful, highly principled essays by one of my best-loved BYU professors. 260 pages.

How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children’s Books, Joan Bodger
A family travels in England — this is the right kind of travelling, quirky and following a private passion. 249 pages.

Friday, January 5, 2007

1994 - Best Books of the Year

Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellows
Surprise after surprise in the language, like a phenomenally gifted acrobat. Feat after feat but all within the circus tent, a brother to the clowns in the sawdust. A likable foolish grotesque for hero and an energizing story. 341 pages.

Women in Prehistory, Margaret Ehrenberg
Exciting real evidence of what women did in the early days of this earth. 192 pages.

Woman the Gatherer, ed. Frances Dahlberg
Changes the standard ideas of cavemen dragging their women about by the hair. 264 pages.

Oh, What a Paradise it Seems and Wapshot Chronicles, John Cheever
Dismaying in their effortlessness. Humorous and heartbreaking by turns. Deals with sex so simply and with such dignity, but his women are Greek goddesses and not human. 112 and 307 pages.

Kitchen, Banana Yoshimoto
A short novel about grief. Very innocently written, clean and clear, delightfully fresh. 152 pages.

Letters to a Young Poet, Rainier Maria Rilke translated from the German by Stephen Mitchell
Great poetic passages. Detailing what it means to choose to write. 108 pages.

The Brontes: Charlotte Bronte and Her Family, Rebecca Fraser
Biography of the Bronte family. Very readable, fascinating subject. 543 pages.

Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories, Jenny Uglow
Well-written biography of an interesting woman writer. 690 pages.

The Wild Iris, Louise Gluck
Beautiful spare poems. 63 pages.

Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood
Novel of growing up in Toronto. Atwood is always worth reading but this is the story she’s been trying to tell in most of her previous books. 446 pages.
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