Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
As is my tradition over the last several years, today I’ll showcase some of the great books I read in 2016. Pull out your To Be Read List so you can make some additions!
I’ll give each book a grade, but I think each of these is worthy of a mention and has its own rewards if you choose to pick it up.
1. Our Souls at Night.
Kent Haruf wrote this book after he was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease and told he had a limited time to live. At first after the diagnosis, he set aside his writing. But then he concluded that sitting around waiting for death wasn’t for him.
So he began to write again. And this novella is the result. He finished the book but died before the galleys were available for him to read.
That background helps the reader to understand Haruf’s mindset while writing the book. If you’ve read any of Haruf’s previous titles, you know that he writes with a literary style and a quiet voice. The quiet voice holds true for Our Souls at Night, but it’s one of Haruf’s most accessible book.
The essence of the story is that an elderly widow walks over to an elderly neighbor’s home and suggests they spend their nights sleeping together. The idea is to experience companionship, to have someone to talk to, to alleviate the loneliness.
At first put off by the prospect, the man declines the offer, but eventually he agrees. Their families are scandalized and threatened. They felt everything was neatly in place. Their parents were nicely tucked into their cushioned worlds, protected from everything that would upset the equilibrium.
Haruf gives the reader plenty to think about regarding love, family, and what’s important in life. I found the book charming yet complex. The seemingly simple story is anything but, and the writing is splendid.
I give this book a B+.
2. Circling the Sun.
Staying true to her brand of writing historical fiction about well-known, real people, this novel explores Beryl Markham’s rise to fame as one of the first female aviators in the 1920s. Beryl was part of a love triangle that also included Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen. You might recognize their names from Out of Africa, written by Karen Blixen under the name Isak Dinesen. And you might have read Beryl’s memoir, West with the Night.
McClain’s challenges are immense in undertaking a fictionalized depiction of Markham’s life. Both Out of Africa and West with the Night are, in my opinion, some of the most beautifully-written, compelling memoirs ever penned.
But McClain showed herself up to the task. I’m not sure how fair it is to compare a novel to a memoir, but I felt Circling the Sun stood up well under the scrutiny. No, it’s not a thing of beauty like West with the Night. But Beryl is, in some ways, more compellingly depicted in Circling the Sun. McClain’s description of life in Africa in the early 1900s put much of Beryl’s life into a clearer context than Beryl offered us in her memoir. Of course, Beryl wrote her book for her peers. McClain gives her peers–us–insights into life in Africa during that time that we wouldn’t know about. And the writing is an enthralling depiction of Africa, showing why Beryl loved it so much.
I give this book an A-.
3. The Wright Brothers.
Written by famous biographer and historian David McCullough, I was set back on my heels as soon as I started to read The Wright Brothers. My expectation was to follow the invention that taught the world how to fly. But the book begins with…the plane’s first flight.
Having anticipated that the story would end with the flight, I wondered just what this book would be about. It turned out to explore what happened to the Wright Brothers after that momentous day at Kitty Hawk.
The story is fascinating and full of surprises. To read a McCullough book is to watch a master researcher at work. He smoothly moves from one piece of research to another and makes the story compelling in the process.
I give this book an A.
4. When Breath Becomes Air.
The author, Paul Kalanithi, was a neurosurgeon and research scientist at Stanford when he received a diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer. At the age of 36, he was on the brink of completing a decade of education and residency. A brilliant surgeon, researcher, and writer, Kalanithi, much like Haruf, chose to continue do surgeries and serve his patients for as long as he could. Also, during a phase of remission, he and his wife decide to have a child. And the good doctor chooses to write a book about what it is like to face death.
When Breath Becomes Air flows with beautiful eloquence, courage, and contemplation. As one reviewer noted, “It is, despite its grim undertone, accidentally inspiring.” Indeed.
The book club I’m a part of read this memoir for more than the delight of finding such an exquisite read. One of our member’s daughter was the oncologist who traversed the last portion of Paul’s life with him. We heard special insights into Kalanithi’s strength and humor but also learned what a difficult life research doctors live. Stanford requires these doctors to maintain a regular list of severely ill patients, conduct research, write papers, and travel all over the world to present those papers. Not for the faint of heart!
Even if we didn’t hear those special insights, I would rate this book an A. Yes, it’s sad to know that a brilliant young man died. But the way he chose to live is awe-inspiring. And who among us doesn’t long to discover our next great read?
Now it’s your turn: Tell us what book(s) were among your 2016 favorites. After all, I need to add to my 2017 list!