A year full of good books is a good year, and mine has been crowded with them.
When people ask me what my favorite book is, I often want to say “Today, my favorite book is the book in my hand.” Here, on the very last day of the year, I am trying to step back and select a few books that stood out. I offer them not only to praise them, but in hopes that you will add them to your list of books you enjoy in the coming year.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
My book club has been meeting for 15 years. We take turns choosing books, and so we read a variety of genres. I usually pick non-fiction, partly because the first novel I chose was universally hated, Pam makes awesome choices that veer toward counterculture, and Terri picks classics most of the time. I think it may have been Terri who chose this one. I just remember that whoever was responsible said she went down the Great American Read list and picked the first one she hadn’t read.
Great choice, if random!
Toole’s novel defines the term ‘picaresque,’ with a main character you may well dislike interacting with and a cast of filled with individuals who might not be people you’d want to know, but are definitely the sort you’d want to know of. Ignatius O’Reilly is completely real and completely irritating. I thought his refusal — or inability — to look beyond his own desires and comforts was the most obnoxious part of his emotional makeup.
The reason to read such a book, a book featuring a character you wouldn’t want to fraternize with in real life but are committing to spend several hundred pages with over the course of the story, is that the cast of characters is full of people you recognize and can laugh at heartily from a safe, literary distance because laughing in people’s faces in reality is NOT DONE.
Educated by Tara Westover.
This memoir was a top pick for many people this year, and yet I was late to the party in reading it. When I asked a friend whose taste as a reader I respect for a recommendation, she mentioned this first.
I wish I’d read it sooner.
Tara Westover led a life that only she can explain. Isolated from mainstream America, physically and emotionally abused, her native intelligence uncultivated until she entered Brigham Young University without any formal education, Westover eventually earned a Doctorate from Cambridge University. Her story is a testament to where grit can get a person.
As someone who was a first generation college student, I know what it’s like to try to learn the code of academia, but my unremarkable childhood prepared me in a way that Westover’s isolated upbringing could never equal. I can’t wait to discuss this with my book club. I know that all of us will come at the story from different angles, and one I have thought about most is how keeping people ignorant is one way those in power STAY in power. Leaders can claim ignorance to maintain their position (”I never knew!” “Where’s your evidence?”) and cultivate ignorance in their followers to ensure the same.
Dry by Neal Shusterman.
Shusterman consistently writes the kind of novels that are arguments in themselves as to why adults should be reading Young Adult fiction. It’s not just that often he writes about issues mainstream novels don’t address or handle badly, in this case it’s that he is writing a scenario that is so close to real world issues it’s scary.
When conflicts over water lead to the only source of water for the state of California being cut off, people are caught in the resulting civil unrest. Even those who thought they were prepared couldn’t have imagined what would happen when humanity’s most basic need is gone.
Water may not be a daily issue for you, but the conflict over who owns the lakes and rivers from which your water comes is an issue that of which we all should probably be more aware. Shusterman’s novel takes a ‘what if’ strategy and runs with it.
Vox by Christina Dalcher.
Dalcher’s book was literally the stuff of nightmares for me. The night I started reading it, the premise followed me into my dreams. In a world where men have deprived women of their voice, limiting them to 100 spoken words a day and depriving them of the written word, neurolinguist Jean McClellan is called upon to find a cure for a type of aphasia — -and in return can have her words back. Is the opportunity a chance for a better world? Or a trap?
Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey.
Before I learned how to diagram sentences myself, I was enchanted by it when Laura Ingalls Wilder had to verbally deconstruct a sentence in preparation for her teaching certificate in one of the Little House books. The thrill of learning to do it myself, to set words on the skeletal frame, lines angled just so, was immensely satisfying.
Florey’s book is satisfying as well, documenting not only the origins and practice of diagramming sentences, but confirming as well the joy that many people other than myself have found in mastering the practice.
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