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.

Back in the USSR

I thought I’d join in with Musing Mondays again.  It’s hosted by Miz B over at Should Be Reading and offers a list of prompts to choose from.  I’m going with the first prompt on the list today because I’m loving what I’m currently reading . . .

As the post title suggests, it’s a book that takes the reader back to the USSR.  In fact the book also takes the reader back to pre-revolutionary Russia, as well as whizzing through post-Soviet Russia into the new millennium.

imageSo it’s a history book, right? Well, yes – and no! The book is Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen, and is a brilliantly well-written memoir of food, family and longing as its subtitle suggests.  The author herself was born into a Moscow family in the 1960s and, at the age of 10, emigrated with her mother to the USA, settling first in Philadelphia and later moving to New York.

Against a backdrop of her own family’s dramatic history, set itself on the wider stage of Russia history throughout the 20th century, the author recreates the food and cooking experiences of the nation for each decade from 1900 to the present day.

It’s a brilliantly- conceived idea, but the real reason the book makes such a fascinating read is the author’s extraordinary ability to combine both personal and national history with politics, family life, work, food and cooking. And the whole concoction is seasoned with a huge dollop of humour running throughout.  Von Bremzen has a lovely readable style, yet writes with great clarity and insight.  I myself spent time in the Soviet Union and Russia from the early 1980s and so have eaten the food of these different decade.  But, even without that live experience,  I have no doubt that the author’s writing would have enabled me to picture, smell and taste the foods she describes.  There are even a few recipes included at the back of the book, so that readers can recreate some of these foodie experiences for themselves.

The chapters describing the late Soviet years, when most things were defitsit (lack/shortage) resonated most for me because of my personal experience, and I couldn’t help but laugh at some of the memories it brought back.  But this is a book with wide appeal.  You don’t need to know anything about Russia and its history – this memoir will give you a mouth-watering introduction to this incredible country.  But if you’ve ever had any kind of interest in the country – or in what it might have been like to live in communist times – this book will more than whet your appetite.  In fact, I would challenge anyone to read it and not be stuffed full by the end – full of new insights, fascinating snippets of information, with humour, poignancy and serious reflection all mixed up in every bite.

Priyatnovo appetita!

My year in books: 2014

Since I started blogging back in September, I’ve loved discovering a whole world of book blogs and reading challenges out there in the blogosphere.  It’s meant I’ve come across books I hadn’t heard of before – or might not have thought about reading – so my TBR list is now longer than it ever was (not that I knew I had a TBR list – or even what one was – before I entered the book blogging world!). I even began to wonder if my own blog should be just for books – but this vicar has way more thoughts than just those about books so it will go on being a place of random musings for the foreseeable future.

But perhaps the best outcome of starting to blog is that I’ve read far more books in the months since I started blogging than I’d been reading in the months before I did.  And having the blog has given me a space to keep a record of my reading – something that never quite worked before.

I’ve tried to put a list of my 2014 reading together – both fiction and nonfiction.  It’s not been easy with no written records before September, but I think I’ve remembered most of what I’ve read this year.  All the books listed with an asterisk* are books read on the Kindle I got as a Christmas present a year ago.  Given what I’ve said before about struggling with e-reading, I’m amazed just how many I did read on a screen rather than on paper.

  • The Casual Vacancy* J K Rowling
  • Bridget Jones – Mad about the Boy* Helen Fielding
  • One Night in Winter Simon Sebag Montefiore
  • The Sweetest Hallelujah* Elaine Hussey
  • The Lie Helen Dunmore
  • A Possible Life Sebastian Faulks
  • Chestnut Street* Maeve Binchy
  • The Last Runaway Tracy Chevalier
  • Purple Hibiscus* Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Americanah* Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry* Rachel Joyce
  • The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy* Rachel Joyce
  • Your Church in the News* Robbie Lane
  • Beyond Busyness: Time Wisdom for MinistryStephen Cherry
  • Pilgrim: A Course for the Christian Journey Stephen Cottrell (et al)
  • How to Write Great Blog Posts that Engage Readers* Steve Scott
  • Productivity Ninja* Graham Allcott
  • One Summer: America 1927 Bill Bryson
  • Red Love: The Story of an East German Family Maxim Leo
  • Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall Hester Vaizey
  • Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo Tim Parks
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran Azar Nafisi
  • I am Malala Malala Yousafzai
  • Travellers of the Heart: Exploring New Pathways on our Spiritual Journey Michael Mitton
  • Making Disciples in Messy Church: Growing faith in an all-age community Paul Moore
  • The Challenge of Change: A Guide to Shaping Change and Changing the Shape of the Church Phil Potter
  • The Book of Boaz Dave Smith
  • Walking Backwards to Christmas Stephen Cottrell
  • Lingo: A Language Spotters Guide to Europe  Gaston Dorren

Well, those are the ones I can remember. There are a few more that I started but haven’t finished, so I’ve left them off the list. I love the final list and can see it’s very ‘me’. There’s a good mix of fiction and nonfiction and coverage of a fair few countries along the way as well as some ‘how-to’ type books and those that connect with my Christian life and ministry.

I’ve just skimmed the list to pick out some favourites, but I just can’t single any out as there were good things about most of them. Looking forward to getting down to some more reading in 2015.

Happy New Year!

Walking Backwards to Christmas: Some Thoughts

imageJust finished reading this brilliant book by Bishop Stephen Cottrell. The cover bills it “The must-read book for the season” and the book is dedicated, in the author’s own words, to “all those who thought they knew the story well”. I’m guessing Bible-reading, book-loving vicars fall into that category, but, in any case, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on this reading experience.

In an intriguing twist on the familiar biblical narrative, the book begins with Anna, and runs, chronologically-speaking, more or less backwards to Isaiah the prophet and Moses. Along the way we hear the voices – eleven in total – of some of those caught up in this story we revisit each Christmas-time. Some are the characters we would expect to find here: Mary and Joseph, one of the wise men and a shepherd. But others are voices whose detail the author has had to create from the wider scriptures and their context. In doing so, I would say he has created entirely plausible characters, who add depth and new or different insights to the familiar story.

In his introduction, Stephen Cottrell suggests the book is best read alone, but that it also lends itself to group discussion after the solo read. To aid discussion, he offers his readers three prompt questions:

Which person in the story did you most relate to?

For me, it wasn’t so much relating to one particular person more than the others, as connecting with insights from particular thoughts or moments in their individual stories.

What surprised, shocked or delighted you the most?

Each story was a delight – I enjoyed them all. There are some shockingly dark and gruesome moments portrayed here, but I felt it was good to be reminded that Jesus’ birth wasn’t the pastel-coloured perfection we often depict it as. And there were surprises on each and every page – those small insights, fresh thoughts or unusual angles I’d never considered before.

How has this changed your understanding of the Christmas story?

It added real depth to the people whose story it is. And the book also reminded me how diverse people’s experiences of Jesus can be. Both of these are good things for a vicar to bear in mind as she prepares to tell the story again this Christmas-time.