My Year in Books: 2016

It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m looking back on a much less bookish year than usual for me, but I thought I’d summarise it anyway.

Fiction

12 of the 30 books I read were fiction. Three of those were whoppers comprising the Ken Follett trilogy of the 20th century –  not a series I would ever have picked up without a strong personal recommendation.  William Boyd also took me on another life lived through the 20th century, as did the two linked Kate Atkinson stories.  As is usual with me, several of my fictional reads had other country settings: the former GDR, the Third Reich, Baltimore, the American Deep South, and Indian immigrants in England. The war years theme was rounded off with Helen Dunmore’s wonderful spy novel set in London and Cambridge.

Here’s the list of fiction titles: The Year of the Runaways (Sanjeev Sahota), The Fall of Giants/Winter of the World/Edge of Eternity (Ken Follett), Stasi Child (David Young), When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (Judith Kerr), The Invention of Wings (Sue Monk Kidd), Life after Life/A God in Ruins (Kate Atkinson), A Spool of Blue Thread (Anne Tyler), Sweet Caress (William Boyd), Exposure (Helen Dunmore)

Non-fiction

So that means 18 of my books read in 2016 were non-fiction. A third of these I could classify as ‘vicars’ books’ – books I read either to help me grow in my Christian faith and personal discipleship or to help me become a better vicar. Another third were about the life/culture/history of other countries, 4 were about the craft of storytelling and/or nonfiction writing and 2 were about TED storytelling and talks.  So a mix of learning more about other countries and cultures and learning stuff for life and ministry.

So this is the non-fiction list: Autopsy of a Deceased Church (Thom Rainer), God Dreams (Will Mancini), All the Places to Go (John Ortberg), The Nail (Stephen Cottrell), Dust and Glory (David Runcorn), Quantum Leap (Grove Books); The Road to Little Dribbling (Bill Bryson), The House by the Lake (Thomas Harding), Stasiland (Anna Funder), Vietnam: Rising Dragon (Bill Hayton), River of Time (Jon Swain), Ghosts of Spain (Giles Tremlett); The Art of Memoir (Mark Karr), Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott), Storycraft (Jack Hart), Experiential Storytelling (Mark Miller); TED talk: Storytelling, How to Deliver a Great TED talk

Thoughts on this list . . .

As tends to be the case with my reading there’s more non-fiction listed than fiction
Other countries, cultures and languages figure prominently
I did less faith-related reading than in other years
I can’t point to any one best read among this year’s list. I really enjoyed most of them, but a few (of the novels) were a bit of a struggle and took me ages to read, ,earning I didn’t get very much read overall.  All the books I read were good to OK but nothing really stood out massively.  My favourite read was The House by the Lake – the story of a house on the western side of Berlin which spent several decades behind the iron curtain. I also enjoyed Jack Hart’s Storytelling and would love to put his teaching and wisdom into practice and write that kind of inspiring narrative nonfiction (I feel a new year’s resolution coming on!)
I only read 30 books, but it felt a lot less than in previous years and I have literally piles of books of all categories, fiction and nonfiction, paper and electronic copies and I long to get so much more read – I feel another new year’s resolution coming on for all those train journeys ahead now that I weekly commute to work . . .

My Year in Books: 2015

Just thought I’d take a moment to summarise last year’s reading. I set myself an informal goal to add real diversity to my reading – mixing both fiction and non-fiction from a range of authors and settings. See if you think I achieved that goal . . .

Fiction

Of the 33 books I read, 13 were fiction with geographical settings as diverse as Afghanistan, Africa and America with plenty of locations in-between! In fact, only three of these novels were set in my home country – and one of those dealt with growing up in a family with immigrant parents and grandparents! The historical settings included the Biafran war, WW2, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the Taliban years in Afghanistan, 19th century Canada, the civil rights era in the US southern states and early 20th century Ireland. Most were stories of family life – some based on real-life and others more fictional – and, to single just one of them out, Elizabeth is Missing was a fascinating exploration of living with dementia and its progression.

Here’s the list of fiction titles: Half of a Yellow Sun, Perfect, Stone Diaries, Almost English, A History of Loneliness, Kabul Beauty School, All the Light we Cannot See, Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, The Sunrise, Elizabeth is Missing, Gone Girl, The Secret Life of Bees, Ghana must Go

Non-fiction

So, 20 of my books of 2015 were non-fiction. Of these, 11 were real ‘vicar’s books’ – books I read either to help me grow in my Christian faith and personal discipleship or to help me become a better vicar. The other 9 included 3 personal memoirs/autobiographies, 1 language, 4 were about life/culture/history of other countries, and 1 taught me how to doodle creatively and productively.

So this is the non-fiction list: Outcry, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Ishmael’s Oranges; Lingo; Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, The Year of Living Danishly, 1989 The Berlin Wall, The Warmth of Other Suns; The Doodle Revolution; Leaping the Vicarage Wall, The Contemplative Pastor, Storytelling, Ignatian Lent, The Journey, Supervising a Curate, Forming a Missional Church, We Make the Road by Walking, Re-ignite, Soul-Keeping, The Meaning is in the Waiting

Thoughts on this list . . . 

As I’ve typed up this summary, I’m struck by several things:

  • Unsurprisingly, non-fiction wins out over fiction
  • Other countries, cultures and languages figure prominently
  • A third of my reading was faith-related
  • Just four of these books belong to my favourite narrative non-fiction genre about lives in other times and places
  • Almost all of my favourite reads of 2015 are on the non-fiction list
  • I only read 33 books and my to-be-read shelves continue to groan under the weight of all that remains unread – and the new gifts and purchases!

Book of the Year

imageI usually struggle to whittle the list down to just one – but I so loved Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer-prizewinning The Warmth of Other Suns, that I’m making an exception for this year.

So, time to get on with reading through 2016 then . . .

Nonfiction November: My year in nonfiction

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Hooray – the Nonfiction November challenge is back! This was my favourite blogging event of last year – so good that it’s got me back here to my blog after many months away.

The focus for this first week is to review my nonfiction reading this year. I’ll stick with the questions Kim over at Sophisticated Dorkiness has posted.

What was your favourite nonfiction read of 2015?

Do I really have to choose from so many great reads this year? Lingo was brilliant if you’re as fascinated by languages as I am, as was Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking – a brilliant ‘memoir of food, family and longing’. And I’m loving my current read so much too: The Warmth of Other Suns, a book that came onto my radar through last year’s Nonfiction November.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

I don’t often recommend the books I read because I’ve long recognised that I have quite an eclectic reading style and other people aren’t necessarily into reading the books I choose for myself. But with my vicar’s hat on, I did recommend two seasonal reads this year, and will be recommending them again this time around too: Walking Backwards to Christmas and The Journey.

What is one topic or type of nonfiction that you haven’t read enough of yet?

I always feel I don’t have nearly enough time to read everything I want to read, so I’m pretty selective about what I do make time for. I realise I read nonfiction to read the world, so I particularly love reading memoirs about life written by people who live or lived in places and/or times very different from my own (I read a lot of fiction that fits this description too!). I never quite get around to reading as many straightforward histories or biographies of politicians and other leaders as I would like. Also, I often come across titles that speak to my other interests – especially languages and popular psychology – that never quite make it to the top of any TBR pile I might construct!

What do you hope to get out of nonfiction November?

Just simply to read as much nonfiction as I can fit in. I’ve got several ‘country’ books lined up: Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor, The Discovery of France by Graham Robb and Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia by Peter Pomerantsev. I’ve also wanted to read The Underground Girls of Kabul for over a year now and The Secret Classroom has been similarly near the top of my must read soon list.

And I will love reading other people’s posts and adding some of their recommendations to my own impossibly long TBR list. And I’ll be encouraged, just as I was last year, that there are so many people out there who share my love of reading nonfiction.

A Perfect Book

imageThe perfect book review of this Perfect book by Rachel Joyce needs to say little more than: Read it now!

It’s been such an enjoyable read. At first sight, it seems a simple and straightforward story that weaves together past and present in the lives of two boys during one particularly eventful summer and its repercussions for their later lives.  But the book has a very skilfully woven plot and I wouldn’t dream of saying too much here so as not to spoil it for anyone who might come across this post before reading the book.

It’s funny, but I only bought the book because I needed to return a duplicate Christmas present and there were complications with the three-for-two offers.  I rather grudgingly agreed to have less money back and get another book from the deal.  And I grabbed Perfect because I had just recently finished reading and had really enjoyed the two Harold Fry stories by the same author.

Perfect works for me because the boys are about the same age as me. This means I identify with a lot of the detail setting the scene for their 1972 lives – it’s very realistic for this kind of English childhood in that era.  The characters are developed well, eminently believable, and quickly became people I cared about. I had to keep reading to discover what would happen to them next or to understand what had gone before.

Perfect is not an edge-of-the-seat gripping thriller of a book, but it’s definitely a real page turner as the author skilfully draws the reader into the story to keep on finding out what happens next. It’s generally a quiet book with a gentle pace, but don’t let that put you off, because this is a story with some big surprises too.  And I really can’t say any more than that right now, or you’ll be missing out on the Perfect reading experience.

Reading Africa: Nigeria

imageBeing a vicar in two parishes with people from all over the world, I’ve decided to be much more intentional about reading the world in the year ahead.  Since quite a number of our church family come from various countries in Africa, and I realise I’ve read very little from Africa, I loved discovering Kinna Reads’ Africa Reading challenge and have signed up. The challenge is simply to read 5 books from, or about, different African countries in the course of a year. Now that must be manageable, especially as I’ve just finished my first and February isn’t quite over yet.

imageI started in Nigeria (or should I say Biafra?) with a book by an author I discovered last year who immediately joined my favourite authors’ list. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is her 2007 Orange Fiction prizewinning second novel set in the late 1960s at the time of the Nigerian-Biafran war.  It tells the story of the build-up to the war and of the conflict itself through the eyes of three main characters: a young Igbo woman from an elite background, her young houseboy, and a white British male university professor.  Each of them passes through various experiences that reflect the particular horror of those years, but their stories also feature love, family life and the day-to-day normality of life, albeit in a context of conflict.

The author has such a wonderfully readable style.  She captures details in such a way that a reader like me, who has never set foot in Nigeria, can picture the settings in which these events unfold.  And she builds detail into her characters – not only the main characters – so the reader develops real empathy and concern for all that is happening to them.

I came away from this book having enjoyed, but also been challenged by, a very good story.  The challenge came because, although it is a work of fiction, I’ve no doubt it draws on real experiences lived by those who lived through those years of Nigeria’s history.  And so I came away better informed too.  That gap in my historical knowledge – I knew the name Biafra but knew nothing of what it stood for.  And I hope I now better understand the different tribal groupings in Nigeria and the sensitivities that will still be present in that community today.

I think anyone with any kind of interest in reading about lives lived through real historical events would enjoy this book.  And I think many of us would benefit from a better understanding of the history of a great country like Nigeria.

As for my next African read, I’ve got a few possibilities lined up.  I could stay in West Africa and move across to Ghana with Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go. Or perhaps I’ll head north to read Alifa Rifaat’s Distant View of a Minaret. There are also some South African books on the list and others too.  And I’m keen to visit Malawi, Cameroon and Uganda because we have parishioners from each of those countries in our church family here.

So where would you suggest I head next?