My Favorite Books of 2021

It’s that time of the year when everyone is making lists of their favorites or what they consider the best of . . . My favorite reads from the past year are a bit all over the place since I read from many genres, but I suppose it’s no surprise that many of these are historical fiction. I’ve finished 142 books this year, but I didn’t try to pick out 21 of the best. (I came close though). These were not (necessarily) books published in 2021, but books I read in 2021. I will list them (in no particular order) along with a short review.

The Beacon of Alexandria by Gillian Bradshaw, first published in 1986.

Historical fiction taking place in the 4th century AD. A young woman wants to be a doctor, but women aren’t allowed to study medicine, so she disguises herself as a eunuch and leaves her home in Ephesus to go to Alexandria where she hopes to find someone who will take her on as an apprentice. She soon apprentices to a Jewish doctor, becomes caught up in church politics and has to flee again. This time she finds herself as an army doctor for the Romans, but life continues to be complicated. I have loved every book I have read by Bradshaw and this is no exception. Great characters and interesting historical background.

The Truest Pleasure by Robert Morgan (1995) takes place in North Carolina after the Civil War and into the 20th century. Ginny’s father has returned from the Civil War but keeping up their farm in the western North Carolina mountains is a huge task for the two of them. When she meets Tom (whose father didn’t return from the war), their attraction for each other and the land are enough for them to marry. Though Ginny wonders at times if Tom was really more attracted to her father’s land than her, they continue to work at their marriage. Their struggles come when Tom becomes obsessed with making money, and Ginny wants to spend time at Pentecostal tent meetings. Both see the other’s passion as foolishness.

The Night Watchman Louise Erdrich (2020; Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2021). My first book by Lousie Erdrich. Erdrich based her story on her grandfather and his fight to stop a bill in Congress which wanted to terminate Native Americans in the name of freedom. It is 1953 and Thomas Wazhashk, a Chippewa Council member and a night watchman at a jewel bearing plant near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota learns of a bill that threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land. He meets with others on the council to try and decide what they can do to stop this. Another main character, Pixie or Patrice, also works at the jewel bearing plant and desires to do something with her life besides get married and have kids. She has an older sister, Vera, who has disappeared in the city of Minneapolis, so Patrice decides to try to find her. What she finds is exploitation and soon needs to escape herself. Great characters and a fascinating story.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell (2013). I’ve heard a lot about O’Farrell (even before she won the Women’s Prize for Fiction last year), but this was my first book by her, and I couldn’t put it down.

While taking care of everyday business at her vintage clothing shop, Iris Lockhart receives a letter, then a phone call. Cauldstone Hospital is closing and they need to know what she wants to do with her great-aunt Esme. Iris is sure there is some mistake as she has never heard of this woman. She soon learns that her grandmother’s claims of being an only child were false and that her sister had been committed (and ignored) to this hospital over sixty years ago. Once she meets Esme and does some research, she is horrified to learn how little it took for a family to get rid of an unwanted and embarrassing relative. 

O’Farrell tells Esme’s story through flashbacks, some from Esme’s viewpoint and others through her sister’s whose mind is now clouded with dementia. I found her storytelling compelling and engaging, though, like Iris, I was also horrified to think of the many (mostly) women  who may have ended up in institutions such as this with no one to plead their cause. I will definitely be reading more from O’Farrell.

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle Monique Roffey (2009). This is the story of a marriage and also a snapshot of the history of Trinidad. I lived in Trinidad for a couple of years (the years portrayed at the end of the book) and I wish I had been able to read this then. I’m sure it would have given me a better understanding of the country’s history and politics.

Still, in spite of the unusual way it was told (the last years are told first), I found the story of George and Sabine compelling, sad, and relatable. From England, George is offered a job with his company in Trinidad and he promises his wife they will only be there for a couple of years. George immediately falls in love with the country, and Sabine–does not. She grits her teeth and determines to stick it out, but as the years go by, the strain is felt on their marriage. Fiction shortlist for Orange Prize in 2010.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January Alix E. Harrow (2019). Loved this stand alone fantasy. January is of mixed race and questionable origin being raised by a white man in London while her father travels the world finding unusual artifacts for this wealthy man. Is he a benefactor or a prison warden? January finds a door to another world early in her childhood but her guardian insists it is in her mind and when she goes back to find it, it has been destroyed. When January is 16, everything she knows is being questioned and her life and sanity become endangered. I could write more & more about this book, but if you want to read a good stand-alone fantasy, just read it!

Cutting for Stone Abraham Verghese (2009). Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born in Ethiopia in 1954. Orphaned by their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance, they are raised by two doctors from the hospital where they were born, and not surprisingly, they both become interested in medicine though in different fields. Revolution and untold secrets cause Marion to have to flee to America where he learns more of his father’s history.
 

A fictionalized version of what might have happened when Agatha Christie first rode the Orient Express. Trying to escape the shame and hurt of her divorce, Christie rides incognito and soon meets two other women with secrets of their own. Together, they help each other out and even become involved in an archaeological dig when they reach Baghad.

I listened to several excellent audio books this year which was in no small part due to the excellent narrators. The first of my top five audio books: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by Victoria Schwab (2020), narrated by Julia Whelan. In France, some 300 years ago, Addie is about to be married to a man not of her dreams. She runs into the forest and calls out for help though she has been warned never to call to the gods of the night. When a man in black offers to give her the life she wants in exchange for her soul, Addie gladly accepts, not understanding the consequences of such an agreement. She will have a (very) long life but will not be remembered by anyone who meets her.

Dark Tides by Philippa Gregory (2020), narrated by Louise Brealey. I reviewed the first in this two book series last year (Tidelands) which I also listened to on audio. Midsummer Eve 1670 at a warehouse on the River Thames, Alinor receives two unexpected visitors and neither are entirely welcome. James Avery is the lover who deserted her years earlier. The other is a Venetian woman who claims to be the widow of Alinor’s son, Rob. Alinor refuses to see the first and though outwardly she accepts the widow’s claims–inwardly, she does not believe her son is dead. Her daughter, however, is taken in by this glamourous Venetian, so Alinor must bide her time to learn what has truly happened to her son.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016). Though unfamiliar with Noah’s comedy routines, I had heard he read this memoir himself and did a great job. I totally agree that his reading was excellent and often humorous, but it is much deeper than just a comedy routine. Born to a black mother and a white father in apartheid South Africa, Noah’s birth was literally a crime. Noah tells what it was like growing up where his mother and grandmother often had to hide him to keep him from being taken away and themselves arrested. His mother plays a key role in his life and is a delightful character as well. Noah gets into many escapades, but his mother makes sure he gets an education and never wavers from making him learn and to always do his best.

When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain (2021), narrated by Marin Ireland (one of my favorite narrators). Anna is a missing persons detective. When a tragedy occurs in her life, she takes off and goes to a small town where she had felt comfortable and loved as a foster child in high school. One of the first things she sees there is a poster for a missing teen. Even though she is there to escape her own grief, she soon becomes involved in this case. She meets old friends and uncovers old secrets.

Honorable mentions: Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018).

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012). Another that was excellent on audio. Narrated by Julia Wheland and Kirby Heyborne.

September by Rosamunde Pilcher (1990).

Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron (2001).

Wintercombe by Pamela Belle (1988).

The last three were rereads, something I seemed to do more of this year. Happily, these three were still enjoyable and fun to read.

Happy New Year!

Looking on the Heart–A Book Review

Looking on the Heart is a commentary on 1 Samuel (a book in the Old Testament) by Dale Ralph Davis. I don’t think I’ve ever written a review on a commentary, but I’ve never read a commentary that so impressed and blessed me. Several reviews on goodreads mentioned how accessible and “easy to read” they found this commentary which is true but it is so much more.

1 Samuel is a book of history and prophecy, telling the stories of Samuel, a prophet and the last judge; of Israel’s first king, Saul; and the beginnings of their second king, David. Quite an important part of history for both Christians and Jews, but what does it have to do with us as Christians living in the 21st century?

From the beginning, Davis teaches that though we learn from all three main characters, we must be careful not to try and fit our own lives into what God was doing with them. What is important in reading any scripture is to learn what we can about God. “Once we see what scripture reveals about God we usually will see how it applies to us.” (p. 45) We are not prophets or kings, but in every story or happening, we can learn something about God in the way He interacted with His specially chosen people.

For example, in 1 Samuel 4 we read the story of the Israelites preparing to go to battle with the Philistines. Since the Philistines had just soundly beaten them (killing four thousand men), the Israelites decide to bring the Ark (a sacred artifact that represented God’s presence) into battle with them. The Israelites were not only beaten again, but they lost the Ark to the Philistines as well. So, what does this teach us about God? Mainly, that we can’t perform certain rituals or say the right words and expect God to perform for us. The Israelites didn’t seek God, and they demeaned the Ark by using it as a good-luck charm when going into battle.

“This is not faith but superstition. It is what I call rabbit-foot theology. When we, whether Israelites or Christians, operate this way, our concern is not to seek God but to control him, not to submit to God but to use him. So we prefer religious magic to spiritual holiness; we are interested in success not repentance.” (p.54)

We might read this story and think it doesn’t really apply to us because we don’t have an Ark to bring into battle, but if that’s all we see we will be missing the point. Do we not think if we ask God in a certain way or use just the right words or if we perform certain religious tasks (going to Sunday School, giving a tithe, etc), then surely He will respond to us and rescue us out of any situation?

Throughout this commentary, Davis points us to what God is doing–whether in the lives of Samuel, Saul, and David or in the nation of Israel. Learning more about God and His character is all we need from a commentary. Highly recommended.

Birds of a Feather

For anyone who innocently believes you can just call a flock of birds a “flock of birds,” I’m here to enlighten you. All birds are not alike and neither are their group names. Some of these names are as charming as some minor league baseball team names (looking at you Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp) and others are, well, for the birds. (Sorry!)

So, how did these different names come about and why? Isn’t enough to know those are robins gathered round? Or do we need to know they are actually a ’round of robins’? (Though others state it is a ‘worm of robins’.)

As with many odd questions that pop in my mind, this is one that led me down a few rabbit trails, but, fortunately, others have already been down those trails and have done the necessary research to discover the origin of these terms, most notably James Lipton in his book, An Exaltation of Larks.

First, these are called “terms of venery” or “nouns of assembly” and these collective nouns don’t just pertain to birds but also animals and groups of people.

In the late Middle Ages, inventing animal group names started as a game, soon became a fad, and turned into a challenge which lasted a couple of centuries. (Please remember there were no entertaining blogs such as this one to read in those days).

As James Lipton put it in An Exaltation of Larks, “What we have in these terms is clearly the end result of a game that amateur philologists have been playing for over 500 years.”

To organize these terms and to make them more official, they were gathered together and published in works that the upper classes used to make sure they did not embarass themselves by using the wrong terms. (For example, it was considered bad form to call a “scurry of squirrels” a “bunch of squirrels”).The first of these was The Egerton Manuscript published in 1450.

“The terms were codified during the period when the river of words was approaching its greatest breadth, beginning in about 1450 with The Egerton Manuscript.” (Lipton)

Then came the The Book of St. Albans (also known as The Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Blasing of Arms) published in 1486 and containing 164 terms. Many of these terms were not for animals but groups of people and were meant to be humorous (“a sentence of judges”, “a melody of harpers,” “a gagle of women”). However, the book’s popularity caused them to become part of the Standard English lexicon.

But I digress. Back to the birds. Here are a few examples:

Group of hummingbirds: Charm (Not sure where this could have come from. The only groups, sorry, charms of hummingbirds I see are chasing each other wildly in what seems to be a pretty selfish defending of territory).

Woodpeckers: descent (Some say this is because they start at the top of a tree and come down, but I have definitely seen them ascend as well as descend).

Descent of Downy Woodpeckers

chickadees: banditry (This is seems oddly appropriate).

A pair of bandits

cardinals: college, deck, Vatican (Several choices here. I prefer a “Vatican of cardinals.”)

finches: charm, trembling

doves: cote, dole, dule, bevy, flight, and piteousness (We always call the ones at our feeder “the drama queens”).

Ducks: Ducks on the water are called a “paddling” or a “raft.” (Mallards have their own terms and as the different writers seem to disagree on this, I will not distinguish between the different types of ducks. This has become confusing enough as it is).

Flamingoes: flamboyance. A flamboyance of flamingoes. This is not easy to say (or spell). Go ahead. Try it a few times.

Hawks: kettle

Eagles: convocation

Owls: parliament (I would love to see a parliament of owls but I don’t really think they hang out together too much).

Crows: murder (This may be a bit unjust but still amusing).

Grackles: plague (We have definitely been plagued with these at our bird feeders).

plague of grackles

But what if you see a group of birds that are a mixed bag of bird types? Is there a correct nomenclature for that? Perhaps “bunch of birds” would do just fine in such cases.

Nuthatch trying to get in a party (or charm) of finches who have a chickadee as their bouncer.

As I mentioned, the naming of groups of birds is only one part of these fascinating collections or terms of venery. We also have a month of Sundays, a mountain of debt, a rash of dermatologists, a cackle of hyenas, a mass of priests, and (one of my personal favorites) a prophet ( or profit) of televangelists.

So, if you want to make sure you are calling all groups by their proper term of venery, check out Lipton’s book though you may be accused of telling a pack of lies if you try to open such a can of worms.

Reading Around the World: Korea

In March, #readingtheworld21 took me to Korea.

Upon my daughter’s recommendation I read In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park. a memoir by a girl who fled communist North Korea to China and eventually made it to South Korea.

‘I am most grateful for two things: that I was born in North Korea, and that I escaped from North Korea.’

Yeonmi Park had no understanding of freedom or what it would be like to live somewhere where you had choices and could make decisions. She grew up being told what to do, what to think, and that their “beloved leader” was not only a political leader but their god. However, in spite of her family’s firm belief in their leader, starvation and the hope that life was better across the river (in China) led Yeonmi and her mother to escape their country, following her sister who had left earlier.

Unfortunately, though there was food in China, it was not quite the promised land they had hoped to find. Sex trafficking was rampant and left the two without many options. Still, with grit and determination, Park and her mother found ways to survive and eventually make their way to true freedom.

Park has since come to the U.S. and has become a leading human rights activist. If you want to hear more of Park’s story, there are several places to hear her on YouTube.

The Last Exiles is a work of fiction and could be considered a companion book to In Order to Live. Suja, a young journalist from an important family, meets Jin at the university in Pyongyang, and they fall in love. Though Suja realizes Jin is from a small village, she does not realize the depth of poverty and hunger his family (and others) face there.

When Jin is arrested and taken to prison, Suja is confused, sure there has been some mistake. When she hears of his escape, she determines to find a way out of North Korea to go and look for Jin.

Both of these books tell a grim story of life in North Korea, a life hard to imagine for those of us who live in freedom.

For another book that tells of a different time in the history of Korea, I recommend a past read, Pachinko. I wrote about this one in an earlier blog post: https://pmgilmer.com/2020/08/29/books-im-reading-august-2020/

How about you? Any books you can recommend about Korea or by Korean authors?

Reading Around the World: Mexico

I read two books from Mexico in the past few weeks for the #readtheworld21 challenge, but I am only going to review one here (I did write about both on Goodreads). The first one I enjoyed; the second I wanted to throw against the wall when I finished. I refrain from reviewing books I don’t like because I’m not interested in reading reviews of books not recommended by the reviewer. I find that a waste of time. This book has been popular and even made into a movie, so I’m doing it no harm in not recommending it.

Now on to my recommended read.

The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea is a story of legend combing historical fiction and magical realism. Urrea heard stories of his ancestor, Teresita Urrea, while growing up; the fantastical stories of her life and miracles. How much was true and how much legend, he set out to discover and spent some twenty years researching and writing her story.

Teresita was the illegitimate daughter of a young girl called Hummingbird and wealthy rancher, Tomas Urrea, during the late nineteenth century in Mexico, a time of unrest and the beginnings of a civil war. Abandoned by her mother, Teresita brought herself to the attention of Urrea and Huila, a curandero. Seeing Teresita’s gifts and potential, Huila teaches Teresita of herbs and healing and promises to help her cultivate her gifts. What leads to Teresita becoming the Saint of Cabora is told in dramatic fashion. Don’t be like me and miss the family tree in the front of the book until you’ve almost finished the book. I would have find this more helpful at the beginning when I was trying to keep names straight but somehow overlooked it.

In lieu of the book, I can’t recommend, let me do a repeat and make a case for one that was on my favorites’ list of 2020–The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia, translated by Simon Bruni. Another story of magical realism and family, the tale begins when Nana Reja finds an abandoned baby under a bridge, covered in a blanket of bees. Though some are horrified both by the bees and the baby’s disfigured face, Simonopio is adopted by landowners who love him as their own. Simonopio soon becomes special, not only to his family but to the whole town. This one is also historical fiction taking place during the Mexican Revolution as well as the influenza of 1918.

I’m sure there are many books about and from Mexico that I need to add to my TBR. If you have any suggestions, please share!

Bird Watching: Beyond Quarantine

Much has been written about the hobbies people have started while in quarantine– everything from raising chickens to baking to bringing home a new puppy. Few of these hobbies are anything new and maybe some of us would have started them at some point in our lives anyway. We just needed a nudge to make us use our imaginations That many people will continue with these hobbies–finding a new joy or way of entertainment that doesn’t involve a screen–is one of the pluses of being forced to entertain ourselves. Much like when our parents told us to go outside and play, we found we could actually find something new thing to do without someone giving us a script.

male and female American goldfinch

Whether because of the enforced quarantine or because my kids are mostly grown and out of the house, I have been baking more (with some success and not a few disasters), and also have picked up birdwatching as a daily obsession. Last summer I bought a pair of binoculars and a North Carolina birdbook and began observing more closely all those feathered creatures around me. I could recognize a robin and a cardinal; knew the difference between a bluebird and a bluejay; but who knew there were several types of woodpeckers living nearby? And why had I never seen a goldfinch (which according to my birdbook is fairly common)? How could I have missed such a bright yellow color?

Male & Female Cardinals

Besides gazing with my binoculars and snapping some pictures, I’ve also been enjoying a few books (of course!) concerning birdwatching. I recently finished A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson, a charming work of fiction that had me googling different birds (in Kenya) as two men had a contest on who could identify the most birds in a certain period. The winner would be able to ask a certain lady to a dance. I’m now reading a memoir, Field Notes From an Unintentional Birder by Julia Zarankin. Long before Covid, Zarankin discovered birdwatching in the midst of some other life-changing events. Though at first reluctant to align herself with this strange group of people who all seem to wear shirts decorated with birds as well as multi-pocketed vests and have an abnormal interest in the various optics of binoculars, Zarankin soon enough found herself enthralled with learning about the birds around her and what they could teach her about herself and her own migratory habits.

In my own backyard, we have several trees, but there is also an empty lot next door, our own little forest. But, as progress would have it, the lot has been sold and now trees are coming down. Trees which surely house some of these birds I’ve been watching and feeding. Yes, I know. I’m living in a house on land that also once held a small forest, and I go to stores where a forest along with its birds and other animals used to live, so I’m trying not to be hypocritical here. But I have learned a few things both in my birdwatching and hearing the crunch and crash of trees. I’m learning to be more observant of my surroundings and more aware of the details in God’s creation. After all, they’re not my birds or trees; they are His.

I’ve also enjoyed observing the response of these birds as parts of their world comes crashing in. At first, they were quiet and out of sight, but soon, even with a bulldozer ramming its way through, they continue to come to the feeders; first the courageous chickadees and titmice, followed by the downy woodpeckers and then even the hummingbirds. A chickadee even put up a vocal protest, chirping above the crunching of branches before he grabbed his share of seeds and flew off.

So, post quarantine, I will continue to watch and observe the birds around me, and I will even try another new baking project.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Jesus in Matthew 6:26-27)

male downy woodpecker

Reading Around the World: Southeast Africa

In February, #readtheworld21 took me to southeast Africa which includes several countries. The countries I read from were Kenya, South Africa, and Ethiopia.

First published in 1959, The Flame Trees of Thika is a memoir by Elspeth Huxley who moved to Kenya in 1913 with her parents. Huxley’s unusual childhood with her optimistic and idealistic parents is described with the eyes of a child though also with the benefit of an adult’s hindsight. Her parents’ attempts to make a go of a coffee farm was interrupted by war with Germany, but before that Elspeth grew to love the country and it became her home. She learns about the different groups of people–their customs and bits of their history–and makes friends as a child in an adult world. Huxley’s beautiful descriptions of this country, its people, and the nature surrounding them made this a classic book.

“. . . when the present stung her, she sought her antidote in the future, which was as sure to hold achievement as the dying flower to hold the fruit when its petals wither.”

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah is another memoir. Noah was born during Apartheid in South Africa. Having a white father and a black mother made his existence a crime, hence the name. I listened to Noah read the audio and found it an excellent read. I had heard this was pretty funny (he is a comedian by trade), and there is humor (I love the way he mimics his mother and grandmother), but the story is much more than humor. It is about growing up poor in a country undergoing growing pains of its own. It’s about the fierce love of a mother who works hard and does not put up with anything including Noah’s many antics.

“My mom did what school didn’t. She taught me how to think.”

“Comfort can be dangerous. Comfort provides a floor but also a ceiling.”

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is one of those books where you become invested in the characters, their lives and how they interact with each other and to their surroundings. I loved everything about this book which takes place in Ethiopia during a time of unrest and revolution. The story begins in 1954 when twin boys are born in a missionary hospital (known as Missing) to a British surgeon father and a mother who is a nun and a nurse from India. Their mother dies and their father disappears but the boys (Marion and Shiva) are raised in love by two other doctors and they both become fascinated with medicine. When Marion is betrayed by both his brother and the girl he loves and then is accused of a terrorist act, he flees to America where he studies medicine but also runs into his biological father. Not someone he had ever wanted to meet but life does not always take you where you want to go.

“You are an instrument of God. Don’t leave the instrument sitting in its case, my son. Play! Leave no part of your instrument unexplored. Why settle for ‘Three Blind Mice’ when you can play the ‘Gloria’? No, not Bach’s ‘Gloria.’ Yours! Your ‘Gloria’ lives within you. The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible in you.”

On deck: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia) and A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson (Kenya).

Reading Books Around the World: Japan

Though traveling is at a minimum these days, traveling through books is still a great way to view and learn of other cultures. This year I’ve been making a conscious effort to read books around the world by jumping into the #readtheworld21 challenge.

January was #JanuaryinJapan. I’ve read three books from Japan and have several more on my TBR. In fact, at this point, I could have just made the whole year “reading in Japan.” However, I have been trying to keep up with the other months as well, which I will discuss in future posts.

For Japan, I’ve read Before the Coffee Gets Cold, The Housekeeper and the Professor, and The Great Passage.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi takes place in a cafe where if you sit in a certain chair, you can go back in time to a certain time of your choosing. You will be poured a cup of coffee before you leave and you must come back before the coffee gets cold. Also, you must understand that you can change nothing. So, why go back? Four different people with four different reasons take the challenge to see someone one more time even if nothing can be changed by it.

“I was so absorbed in the things that I couldn’t change, I forgot the most important thing.”

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa is a small but beautiful book of how a housekeeper and her son care for a mathematics professor whose memory has been impaired by an accident. After eighty minutes, his mind “refreshes,” so every day the housekeeper has to reintroduce herself to the professor who always asked her for her birthday and tells her the importance of that number. Though he keeps sticky notes on his jacket to remind him of important facts (like the name of his housekeeper), it is a constant challenge to both of them. The professor becomes very fond of the housekeeper’s son, calling him “Root” because his flat head reminds him of a square root. They both love baseball, so there’s the added bonus of reading about baseball as well as prime numbers.

“he seemed convinced that children’s questions were much more important than those of an adult. He preferred smart questions to smart answers.”

In The Great Passage, Araki has been working on a new dictionary (not for the faint of heart!) and is about to retire, so when he hears about the odd man in sales who sounds like the perfect man to help him continue his project, he snatches him up. Majime, who never seems to fit in with his love for antiquarian books and his linguistic background, finds that working on a dictionary is exactly where he needs to be.

You will not be bogged down with the details of making a dictionary though there are some interesting insights into what goes into tracking down words and their meanings. And what if you leave out a word? Disaster is always just around the corner. But it’s the characters, their relationships, and how they come together in spite of their differences that make this an enjoyable story.

“Any dictionary, no matter how well made, was destined to go out of date. Words were living things.”

“Reading the dictionary could awaken you to new meanings of commongly used words, meanings of surprising breadth and depth.”

This is just a small slice of Japanese literature. What these three books have in common (besides their Japanese culture) are their quirky and charming characters who are going about every day tasks and learning more about themselves as well as others.

On deck: A Midsummer’s Equation by Keigo Higashino and Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami.

Any suggestions? What parts of the world would you like to travel to?

20 Favorite Reads from 2020

In spite of all the craziness of this year, reading never stopped for me and continued to be an escape as well as a part of learning and growing. I had several favorites but wasn’t sure I would list twenty, but why not? These are my favorites from 2020 in no particular order of preference though most were published earlier.

1. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996).  I started the year reading this first book from Russell and though science fiction is not my usual genre, I did enjoy this one. A listening post in Puerto Rico picks up some music from another planet and a group of scientists and Jesuits set off to find this planet. Only one returns. Why? What happened to the rest of them?

2. Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, (1998). Allende, a Chilean/American, writes historical fiction with a touch of magical realism. In Daughter of Fortune, Eliza Sommers is raised in a British colony in Chile, falls in love with an unsuitable servant, and when the servant leaves for the goldrush of 1849 in California, Eliza manages to secretly follow him. I loved the beautiful writing of this book as well as the descriptions of the historical places and events.

3. The Lost Queen by Signe Pike (2018). Pike read a book which traces the origins of the real Merlin who had a twin sister who became a strong Scottish queen. From that, Pike writes an entertaining and compelling first book of a coming trilogy.

3. The Historian Elizabeth Kostova (2005) This book is long, slow-paced, rich in description, and a bit creepy. A father and his daughter are on a quest to learn more about Vlad the Impaler and what, if anything, he has to do with the legend of Dracula. Again, not my usual genre, (horror) but I enjoyed this one.

4. Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb (2015)What would my year be like without reading a Robin Hobb book? Hobb is my favorite fantasy writer, and I have spent years following Fitz and his adventures  or  misadventures.

5. Anthony Horowitz The Word is Murder (2018) If you’re looking for a good murder mystery, look no further than Anthony Horowitz. He always delivers and this mystery within a mystery is no exception.

6. The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia; translator Simon Bruni. Historical fiction, magical realism, this tells the story of a family during the Mexican revolution and the influenza of 1918. I loved it!

7. Started Early, Took My Dog Kate Atkinson (2010). This is the fourth of the Jackson Brodie books. I recently reread the first (Case Histories) for a library group meeting next week. I enjoy Atkinson’s rather dark humor and the way she weaves several story lines together.

9. Summer Queen Elizabeth Chadwick (2013).  I’ve been reading Chadwick for years. One of my favorites for historical fiction. This is the first of a trilogy about  Eleanor of Aquitane. She married King Louis of France at the age of 13 in 1137.

10. A Gentleman in Moscow Amor Towles (2019). A count is put under house arrest by the Bolsheviks in Moscow in 1922. Consequently, he spends the rest of his life in a hotel. If this premise doesn’t sound fascinating to you, you’ll just have to trust me (and hundreds of other readers) who found this book full of charming characters, humor, and great descriptions.

11. Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner (2020). “Unforgettable novel about friendship and forgiveness set during a disastrous wedding on picturesque Cape Cod.” Though I did enjoy this (more than I thought I would), unforgettable is a bit of a stretch but maybe that’s just my age. Still, this was a fun read covering some serious issues concerning friendship. 

Audio These are my four top audiobooks. All fiction as I rarely listen to nonfiction.

12. The Mother-in-Law Sally Hepworth (2019). A woman’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law ends in suicide; or murder? This was so good, going back and forth with the different viewpoints and the ending totally surprised me.

13. The Goldfinch Donna Tartt (2013). This book won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2014. A young boy is with his mother in a museum when a bomb goes off. His mother is killed and he takes a priceless picture away with him. Both of these events haunt him for the rest of his childhood and into adulthood. Parts of this book I loved. The audio was excellent and I became attached to Theo and his friend Boris. Other parts were tiresome (drug use, language, etc.), but overall, a book that kept me entertained for many hours. 

14. The Tidelands Philippa Gregory (2019). In England 1648, Alinor is a woman skilled with herbs and suspected of witchcraft. Her husband is missing and believed to be dead, so Alinor must use her wits and skills to provide for herself and her children. Another long one that kept me enthralled and ready for the next in the series.

15. All We Ever Wanted Emily Giffin (2018)  Set in Nashville and told with three different viewpoints (with different narrators), a girl’s picture is taken at a high school party and spread over the internet. Not only is the girl half clothed, a racial slur has been inserted. One boy is accused but is he guilty? A story of entitlement, family drama, and the dangers of social media. Excellent!

Nonfiction Yes, I do read some nonfiction.

16. Owls of the Eastern Ice Jonathan C. Slaght (2020). Slaght, a field scientist and conservationist, saw his first fish owl in Primorye, Russia. Though they have a wingspan of over six feet and a height of over two feet, they are elusive and little has been known about them. Slaght spent five years with other scientists in the wilds of Russia tracking, capturing, and learning about these fish owls and what they need to survive.

17. Isaiah by the Day Alec Motyer (2014) This is a translation by the Biblical scholar Alec Motyer along with a daily devotional. A friend and I have been studying Isaiah together and this book along with Motyer’s commentary has been a tremendous help and blessing to us. Highly recommended for anyone serious about studying the book of Isaiah.

18. Proverbs Eric Lane (2007). I used this book in a Bible study and though it was listed on my goodreads as the least favorite of my books for 2020 (meaning not many people listed it on goodreads), I found this to be a good study tool with intelligent questions.

19. Pudge: the Biography of Carlton Fisk Doug Wilson (2015). I’ve been a baseball fan since I was a kid, and I found this biography interesting both in telling about the life of Fisk and the history of baseball during the 70’s and 80’s.

20. The Prodigal Prophet and the Mystery of God’s Mercy Timothy Keller (2018). An excellent study on the book of Jonah though I don’t think I’ve read anything by Keller I didn’t enjoy and learn from.

Those are my favorites from 2020. Looking forward to another year of reading. How about you? Any highlights from 2020?

North Carolina Writers

 

One of the reading challenges I have participated in this year is the 2020 #mmdchallenge (The Modern Mrs. Darcy, aka Anne Bogel) which includes twenty-four different challenges. One of these challenges is to read a book by a local author. Bogel, a Kentucky native, posted a list of Kentucky authors a few weeks ago, so I am going to present a list of North Carolina authors. Though not exhaustive (we have quite a few writers to be proud of), here’s a few of my favorites.

The book I intend to read for this challenge is Down the River by John Hart. This will be my first book by Hart though he has written several thrillers set in North Carolina. Born in Durham, Hart is also one of the many lawyers turned writer who are putting out books today. This particular book was a Barry Award nominee and an Edgar Award winner in 2008.

Robert Morgan is a poet and author with many books and awards to his credit. I’ve read Gap Creek twice which won the North Carolina Literature Award as well as the James G. Hanes Poetry Prize. This “story of a marriage” takes place in the mountains at the end of the 19th century. Julie Harmon works hard–“hard as a man” and she needs to in order for the couple to survive. Morgan is a wonderful storyteller, and two other books I can recommend are The Road from Gap Creek and Brave Enemies.

 

Wiley Cash has written several best-sellers and serves as writer-in-residence at UNC-Asheville. I wrote a review of The Last Ballad  https://pmgilmer.com/2018/01/04/wiley-cash-the-last-ballad/  a couple of years ago. The Last Ballad is also a book I’ve read twice–the second time when my library group selected it for that month’s read. The book tells the true story of woman, Ella May Wiggins, who tried to help form unions for the textile industry in 1929. Her courage and determination to help herself, her family, and others like her makes for a gripping read.

A native of Asheville, Sarah Addison Allen writes sweet, romantic family dramas with a bit of magical realism. Her first book, Garden Spells, tells the story of the Waverly women who are guardians of an apple tree that contains strange and magical properties. Drawing on her grandmother’s culinary traditions, Claire has built a successful catering business. When her sister returns home, her young daughter in tow, Claire’s quiet, ordered life is turned around–but in a good way.

I’ve loved the characters and relationships in all of Allen’s books. This quote from First Frost is a good example of their personalities. “Oh, please. Everyone in this town always says that like you have to be born here to understand things. I understand plenty. You’re only as weird as you want to be.”

Charles Frazier is best known for his first novel, Cold Mountain, the story of a Confederate soldier making his way home after the war. That story was based on stories from Frazier’s great-great-great grandfather as well as local stories and legends. It’s been several years since I read this one, but I remember the capitivating narrative told in a beautiful way.

Another book I enjoyed by Frazier was Thirteen Moons. As a “bound” boy, twelve-year old Will Cooper is sent to run an trading post in Cherokee territory. He becomes friends with Bear, a Cherokee chief, and is adopted into his tribe. Frazier writes descriptively of the time period, the scenery, and the growth and adventures of Will.

“What I wanted to do was slap him down a bit with wit and word. Grammar and vocabulary as a weapon. But what kind of world would it be if we all took every opportunity presented to us to assault the weak?”

One more author I will mention–Ron Rash, a poet, short-story writer, and novelist who was born in South Carolina and teaches at Western Carolina University. I’ve read several poems and stories by Rash as well as his novel The Cove though he is better known for his novel, Serena, which was also made into a movie.

The Cove takes place near the town of Mars Hill in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina during the time of the Great War (or WWI). A young woman, Laurel, lives with her brother, Hank, who has recently returned from fighting in France. Laurel finds a man in the woods nearly dead from yellow jacket stings. Mute, the man carries only a silver flute and a note saying his name is Walter and he is on his way to New York. Walter also carries a secret which may prove a threat to Laurel and Hank as the war in Europe is coming to an end.

As with Frasier and Cash, Rash is able to bring you back in time and to another place and helping you to understand a little part of history.

Any other North Carolina writers you would like to recommend? Or your favorite one from another state?