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.
Having read Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, a novel about the relationship between Hemingway and his first wife, I eagerly dipped into her next novel, 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!
Oh Janet, thank you for this. I started to read “When Breath Becomes Air” before Christmas and returned it to the library unfinished, just because I couldn’t do it justice in that busy season. Now I’m [ALMOST] wishing for a blizzard just to settle back and give it the undivided attention it deserves.
*I recently finished Christa Parrish’s “Stones for Bread.” I’m ordering it for my mother’s winter reading, and for my sister-in-law, the only one in our family who might actually use the recipes. Bread of life, bread is life!
Shirlee, setting aside time to read and ponder When Breath Becomes Air is a good idea. You’ll be glad you made that decision.
Did you give it a grade?
I gave it an A, Kathy.
You’ve got some interesting choices here, Janet! I’ve read a lot about the Wrights, but that McCullough has a narrative…that’s worth reading. He’s good.
* A couple of your choices, yeah, I think I’ll probably pass. Too close to home. If i were going to write something along the lines of “Breath Becomes Air” it would have a very different focus. Perhaps it’s a good thing it won’t be written. “Attila The Hun Gives The Last Lecture” probably would be a nonstarter.
* As for the books I read in 2016…well, I can’t recall most of them. Not the fault of the authors; many days I go to bed lucky to remember my own name.
* I will, however, suggest a perennial favourite, Al Sever’s “Xin Loi, Viet Nam”, a memoir of thirty-one months of combat as a helicopter door gunner. Sever is literate, eloquent, and thoughtful, and you’ll come away changed. I’m short of a copy, for I inadvertently loaned it to a literary canine who devoured it at one reading.
Andrew, I thought of you as I made my list. I knew you would pass on a couple of my suggestions. Honestly, I hadn’t remembered I read Our Souls at Night and When Breath Becomes Air in the same year because they were bookends that framed the year.
If one must have a dog that chews up books, I suppose it’s good to have a literary one. 🙂
Janet, I am so honoured that you thought of me – the Christmas season saw a massive setback, and I’m really scared. But…you are one of the Giants of the Faith for me, and to know that I crossed your mind gives me both strength and hope.
* It’s good to have literary dogs. I suspect that when I get to Heaven, I shall discover that our canine friends have always had faculties of which we could only dream, and they were lacking only the opposable thumbs needed to set we humans straight.
Andrew, I’m sorry to hear of the setbacks you experienced over the holidays. You are having to show a special kind of endurance to run this race.
Opposable thumbs and the ability to speak human language are all dogs are lacking. Language won’t be a barrier for us in heaven. Won’t that be loverly!? I’m looking forward to being reunited with my “children.”
Thanks, Janet. I’ll be looking forward to what our canine friends have to say, too…but until we get there they will be making a VERY joyful noise unto the Lord! 🙂
What a great list of reads, Janet. I’m glad you share these posts. Your book selections expand broaden my reading horizons.
*Of the books I read last year, my top picks would be, Fervent, by Priscilla Shirer. This book helped me rethink my prayer strategy, which is a good thing. I also enjoyed,
*The Wedding Shop, by Rachel Hauck. This slip time novel wove together beautifully, and it kept me guessing.
*Talk of the Town, by Lisa Wingate kept me engaged. Her dialogue and the characters were a delight.
*And, The Last Stand at Khe Sanh, by Gregg Jones, left me thinking and wanting to learn more about this key facet of the Viet Nam war. He kept a quick pace and was thorough in his research, as far as I could tell.
*I read other books, but these ones stood out for me. 🙂 I look forward to checking out the ones you shared today, Janet!
That’s a great reading list, Jeanne. Thanks for sharing it.
Here are my favorite reads for my 2016:
Short-Straw Bride by Karen Witemeyer
The Lady and the Lionheart by Joanne Bischof
Until the Harvest by Sarah Loudin Thomas
What discerning taste you have 😉
I’m a fan 🙂
My problem at present is we have something in excess of 3,000 books in our house (best estimate; could be more). I don’t feel like adding to the collection, not even e-books. Consequently, I have very little on hand that I’d consider “modern”, say later than 2000. I should make more use of our library, I guess.
This last year I read mainly for research. Currently reading in two books on the Civil War, both of which I started on months ago. I read three books on Thomas Carlyle, as well as some of his writing. Recently finished an 1800s book on Ipswich, Mass, for research into the Colonial era, and am now slogging through Johnson’s 1647 Wonder Working Providence, neither of which is likely to lead to a commercially viable book. I also carved out a little time in 2016 to read a little C.S. Lewis. I’d like to do much more of that.
David, reading current releases isn’t always the most rewarding way to look for a good book. Our book club tries to read one classic every year, although I think we didn’t have one on our list for 2016. Revisiting older books has its own rewards.
Circling the Sun has been recommended by others. Downloaded! I read When Breath Becomes Air and thoroughly enjoyed it, but wished for some sort of grand conclusion, which, of course, death robbed us.
My favorite book of 2016 was Long Way Gone by Charles Martin. That guy can WRITE!
Sarah, I was fascinated to see how the publisher handled that When Breath Becomes Air couldn’t be completed by the author. I thought they did an amazing job of giving us a book that felt whole rather than piecemeal.
I haven’t read a Charles Martin book in some time. Thanks for reminding me about him.
Wendy L Macdonald
Thank you, Janet, for your reading suggestions. I’m happy to see memoir included in the list as it’s one genre I can’t get enough of. My favorite book of 2016 was “The Broken Way” by Ann Voskamp. It’s an ‘A’ in every way. I’ve written a long review of it in on Goodreads & Amazon.ca, so I won’t bother to here. And I love that she’s a Canadian writer.
By the way, I’ve just downloaded a sample of: When Breath Becomes Air. 🙂
Blessings ~ Wendy Mac
Wendy, thank you for reminding me of Ann Voskamp’s newest book. One Thousand Gifts was profoundly moving for me; so I’m adding this one to my to-read list. By the way, I love memoir as well. Have you read Beryl Markham’s West with the Night? It’s breathtakingly beautiful.
Wendy L Macdonald
Janet, no I haven’t read it. Your words “breathtakingly beautiful” and Hemingway’s description of it as “bl–dy wonderful” have prompted me to download a sample of it. And I agree One Thousand Gifts is “profoundly moving.” I could dine on her writing every day. Thank you for tipping me with another memoir title.
You’re most welcome, Wendy.
My wife and I read “West with the Night” before we moved to Africa for a two-year contract. She and Isak Dinesen gave voice to much of what we wanted to say about that dramatic, sublime part of the world.
It’s great to hear that their depictions rang true for you and your wife. We always wonder just how accurate the picture that is painted for us is.
This is a hard one, Janet, because I’ve been reading as much Roman history by academics to use for articles at my author website as I have fiction. The historical works fascinate me but probably wouldn’t appeal much here.
*I am reviewing a lot of novels set in Roman times on the historical fiction page of the website. Some of the best were by real historians like Paul Maier (his “Pontius Pilate” was superb and has deservedly sold over a half million copies) and Robert Graves (“I, Claudius” was picked by Time as one of the top 100 since 1923). But the one that kept me up reading until 3 am three nights running was “A Stray Drop of Blood” by Roseanna White, whom you may know from her highly successful historicals set in Edwardian England.
*For deeper reading, I’d have to say some of the best were several by Andrew Murray and A.W. Tozer. The one that really made me think was “The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit” by R.A. Torrey, where he made the point that the main reason we are given any of the gifts of the Spirit is to make us better able to serve and not simply for our own benefit and pleasure.
Carol, what a great reading list you had in 2016! I love Roseanna White’s books, and while I haven’t read I, Claudius, I certainly watched Derek Jacobi’s stunningly effective performance of it on PBS years ago.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
Our family called it “I, Clavdivs”, because we’re mature like that.
And my poor father, who first language is not English, refused to try and say “Claudius” because it sure did look like “Clavdivs!”
I’m thinking of doing an audio version of my first novel, but should I have the reader pronounce the hero’s name “Lukius” like the Romans would or “Looshus” like we North Americans would pronounce Lucius. The historical purist in me says the former, but would that seem weird?
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
Hmm, my favourites?
Off the top of my head…
The Lady and the Lionheart, Joanne Bischof (unravel a roll of paper towel for the crying jags…tissues won’t do…or maybe use a beach towel)
ANYTHING/EVERYTHING ever written by Tamara Leigh
Close To You Kara Isaac (laugh out loud funny)
Other faves? Amber Perry, Carol Moncado, Becky Wade, Laura Frantz
Jennifer, any book that requires a beach towel to soak up the tears sounds like a wonderfully cathartic read.
Janet, I was happy to see your comments on Our Souls at Night. Redford and Fonda were in town for weeks last fall filming the Netflix movie. Haruf was from Canon City (where I live) and the small town used for the movie is Florence, four miles to the east. Hopefully it will be as good as the book you describe, but so often movies are iceberg tips by comparison.
Davalynn, what a fun connection to the film for you! My family has roots in Hoyt, Colorado, so I get that small-town vibe. I’d recommend seeing the movie first and then reading the book to enjoy the richness (hopefully) of both.
Stephanie Grace Whitson
Kent Haruf! I’ll be reading that soon. One of my 2016 favorites: All the Light We Cannot See. Surprising, because WWII isn’t a particular draw for me personally. And I didn’t like that the story wasn’t told chronologically. Still, I loved this book. In fact, I could say it grabbed me and didn’t let go. I thought about it long after finishing it … and made a date with the neighbor who loaned it to me to have “wine and book talk.”
Stephanie, All the Light We Cannot See is one of my all-time favorite novels. Exquisitely rendered, fascinating, touching. And tells about a part of WWII that was new for me: The horrific bombing and burning of the walled citadel. I read that Doerr was inspired to write this story when he visited Saint-Malo. And he knew he wanted one of the characters to be a radio operator who is in the city during the bombing.
What great suggestions!
*Not yet January 10, and I have my to-read dance card for 2017 filled.
*Time to start on the 2018 list . . .
I know I am a day late but I had to comment. I have Paula McLain’s book “Circling the Sun” however I haven’t had the chance to read it yet. I went to the library near me to hear he speak about her books and have her sign her book. Great speech! She lives not too far from me.
Lori, I would totally have headed to the library with you. I’d love to hear her speak and give some insight into her writing process.
Laura C. Brandenburg
Thanks for sharing this list. I always like to see book recommendations!
**My favorite book from 2016: Long Way Gone by Charles Martin. I’ve read all of his books. This one was more overtly Christian–reminded me of When Crickets Cry.
***I also really enjoyed Beth Vogt’s new book, Almost Like Being in Love, and Kristen Heitzmann’s new book, Told You Twice.
****On my reading list: I’d like to read Beth Moore’s fiction book and Ann Voskamp’s new book. I’m also a big Gilmore Girls fan, and I’ve started Lauren Graham’s latest book. She makes me laugh. 🙂
Those all look like excellent choices, Laura. Happy reading in 2017!
Thank you, Janet. I’m vowing to read this year and set a writing schedule. I’ll check out those book. (Literally)
Lovely, Janet. Thank you. My library has all of these in audio, which means I get to read them all. I almost have no time anymore for reading print other than endorsements, research, and my own work. I miss it, but I’m so thankful for audio books.
Lori, you and millions of others have found audio the best way for them to experience books. Happy “reading”!
Janet, I just finished Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande. When I mentioned to a friend how much I enjoyed and appreciated the message of the book as well as the writing itself, she suggested When Breath Becomes Air as a follow-up. So thank you for being a second voice urging me to check it out soon. Have you read Being Mortal? I highly recommend it.