December 17, 2013

The Books of 2013

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The dreamy comfort of the books and tea and sofa-ness in this photo has essentially not been my life for the past five months.  Early this year I purposed not to move through books at such a whirlwind pace, feeling that, while I did manage to read quite a bit during 2012, the list was oddly unsatisfying.  It was all very nice to have found five five-star books in a  year, but by December 2012 I felt out of breath and annoyed, and decided I would go into 2013 with a little more vision and purpose and All That.

Well, I don't suppose I really needed to purpose any such thing: college pretty much took care of the problem.  Oh, I toddled along well enough up until July - but after that the newness of the first semester at college swooped down on me and my fun-reading suffered accordingly.  However, I read what I read and that is better than nothing.

Goodreads says I've read thirty-seven books this year, but that doesn't count a few I was dragged through for the sake of a good grade.  Don't get me started on Writing Women's Worlds, for instance, which begins with terrible alliteration and goes on down from there.  However, I did find The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down a tolerable venture into the world of biomedical culture.  It is, in essence, the story of a Hmong refugee family, their epileptic daughter, and the clash between their culture and that of the California medical community - not a light bouncy sort of read, but somewhat like a medical thriller all the same.  (I sold it back to the bookstore all the same.)

History, as I mentioned in an earlier post, has had me racing between eras and nations and topics and not properly finishing much of anything.  Four chapters in Nicole Howard's The Book, a brief overview of book-making technology; five or so in The Ottoman Age of Exploration, an interesting look at the Ottomans' Indian Ocean venture of the 16th Century (if somewhat burdened by the author's propensity for qualifying all his remarks); bits and pieces of The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, a collection of primary sources; and C.V. Wedgwood's A Coffin for King Charles/A King Condemned/The Trial and Execution of King Charles I - the only one I have actually been able to FINISH, and a pretty fair sketch of events (for a Royalist).  Possibly something else, too, but my head is so full of studying-for-the-exam that I can no longer think straight enough to be sure.

I have been able to relax with a few histories not directly related to the early modern period.  My first book of the year was Ben Macintyre's Operation Mincemeat, the fuller, more accurate history of the espionage venture from the film "The Man Who Never Was" - which is splendid because of its creepiness and because it has Stephen Boyd as an Irish agent.  Barbara Tuchman's The First Salute was another far-flung, not very well reasoned foray on my part; I remember little of its main point, and looking at my review, I find I wasn't actually sure of its main point when I finished reading it.  Oh well, Tuchman and all...

After that I confess I indulged my interest in Richard III for a while, picking up The Wars of the Roses, The Last Plantagenets, Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III (fun stuff, that), and, less historically, The Daughter of Time.  The latter was a kind of history lesson wrapped up in a pseudo-mystery, very influential in both genres and, I thought, not very enjoyable as a book.  The writing style was too insistent, the author too bent on bludgeoning.  I like Richard as much as the next sentimental gal, but goodness! no need to tie yourself in knots over it!

I was more successful with a few other mysteries.  I finally sat down and read The Woman in White: rather melodramatic, but oddly enjoyable in its melodrama.  I especially liked the rotation of narrators and the way it is set up like a court case, with each witness delivering his or her testimony in turn.  And then, similar only in being a classic mystery and full of Gothic flavor, there was Rebecca.  Disturbing, emotional, dark and incomplete - and fantastic.  Oh, I guessed the Big Plot Twist, but I don't mind that - it wasn't the point.  Rebecca was brilliant in its breathless, intimate, closed stream-of-consciousness style (and in having a completely nameless protagonist).  It turns mystery tropes on their heads and made me lose sleep.  I cannot for the life of me understand why writers are attempting to reinvent it or "pay homage" to it, for it isn't the sort of book that can very well be improved.

Death Comes to Pemberley was somewhat less rewarding, but that's partially my fault: I should have known better than to relax my strict views on classic adaptations.  However, I knew that P.D. James is an acknowledged mystery writer with a great deal of experience - not some young twerp with an over-inflated ego.  So I gave it a shot.  And, well, it was nothing to write to Longbourn about.  The thing about books that borrow characters is that no one will ever write those characters as well as the original author.

Over in the realm of classics, I feel I made some worthwhile progress.  I ventured into the world of Mr. Bertram Wooster and his man Jeeves, finally read To Kill a Mockingbird (and liked it), finished off the Bounty trilogy with Pitcairn's Island, and crawled through The Arabian Nights.  I don't think that was meant to be read in one chunk.  I did a little more work with Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Taming of the Shrew (!), The Comedy of Errors, and Henry VIII Which Was Long And Tedious.  I read The Black Arrow, which, alas, is not my favorite Stevenson, and which could really be classed with my Richard III binge.  Also, I finally read David Copperfield!  Hurrah hurrah!  Steerforth is no Carton, but I'll admit to getting a little sniffily over that part.

Encouraged in no uncertain terms by Mirriam, Jenny and I picked up The Grand Sophy over the summer and were soon in stitches.  I recently read Heyer's Why Shoot a Butler?, too, but I suspect I'm going to be fonder of her romances than of her mysteries.  We'll see after They Found Him Dead.  I'd like to get one of Heyer's historical novels and give it a whirl - sample some of each, as it were.

I didn't find many five-star books this year, but one I did "discover" was J.I. Packer's Knowing God.  Yes, I know, I should have read it before, and I intend to read it again.  Packer combines a no-nonsense air - typical, I think, of British practical theologians - with compassion for those struggling with realities of sin and justification and assurance.  His emphasis on the role of adoption in the life of the believer helped give me a new perspective on it, and renewed appreciation for the work of the Holy Spirit.  Rather harder to read but even more provocative was Lesslie Newbigin's Signs Amid the Rubble, a collection of lectures on the Kingdom of God and God's purposes playing out in human history.  What was it I said?  "I said something rather brilliant this morning before tea."
Sometimes I wondered if he wasn't pushing the edges of orthodoxy, and certainly I wouldn't recommend this book for a new believer; but taken as a whole, and not in fragments, I found him thoroughly solid. Besides, it is good to read writers who jar you and push at your foundations and pull you outside of your box and comfort zone. Newbigin was such a man, and his "Signs Amid the Rubble" is a book worth returning to. 

what made it into your "read" pile this year?


13 comments:

  1. Quite a haul, I'd say, despite the college doldrums. I'm glad you liked To Kill a Mockingbird; it takes a while to get started, but oh, is it worth it. The same thing could be said about The Last of the Mohicans, one of my favorite 2013 reads. The Grand Sophy has been praised so much it's almost getting to be a cliche, but that won't stop me from admiring it once more. The hilarity and wit that is Charles Rivenhall and Sophia Stanton Lacy in the same room cannot be overstated.

    I think I'll wait another week or so to get my yearly reads list up; perhaps by that point I'll have finished The Count of Monte Cristo at long last. You'd think Dantes could wreak revenge on his enemies with more immediacy . . . but no, that would deny Dumas his French birthright to verbosity.

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    1. The Last of the Mohicans ripped out my heart and beat it with a stick and wrung it out twice and beat it some more - but yes, Cooper did run on something awful in that introduction. I did not think I was going to like it at all, the way he waxed eloquent on the vastness of the wilderness in North America...but then Hawkeye showed up, with Chingachgook and Uncas close behind, and I was a goner.

      I passed quickly over The Grand Sophy for that very reason: so many people have already read and celebrated it that I figured its wonders are by this time pretty well known. I keep eyeing the stack of Heyer romances I brought home from Scotland for Jenny, wanting to read one, but knowing I should press on with the rather weighter Man in the Iron Mask. You and I, girl, you and I! We shall conquer Dumas' verbosity! ...Sometime. Maybe. Perhaps.

      (Have you gotten to the part where the Count is jabbering on about the fish he imported from, where was it? Russia? just to show off his wealth? I seem to remember that section getting ridiculously ponderous.)

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    2. Ah, yes, I remember that part. So much of the book blends together (the carnival in Rome?) that it's hard to recall all the details, but that scene still sticks out. Only the Count . . . !

      As of now, the Villeforts are dropping like flies, Mercedes and Albert just abandoned Fernand, who then commited suicide, and Monte Cristo is standing back and cooly watching them all. Rather pleasant post-Christmas reading and all that. I've been periodically returning to Sayers to restore my hope in morality.

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  2. Well, blast. And here I thought I was going to make something of myself by reading The Last of the Mohicans. Now I see I am just the last to a long party of Having Reads.

    I, too, will hold off a little longer to put up my post. I need to finish Cooper and possibly get through all of Regency Buck by the end of the year. Not a very stellar collection of books this year, I think: a very leisurely year. I have no excuse for that.

    Henry VIII Which Was Long And Tedious.

    :D

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    1. Leisurely years are good. You need a Jubilee year every now and again in the midst of weightier reads. Besides, you do have an excuse: you were in a strange location for three months, which is no very great encouragement for hard reading.

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  3. Wow, it has been a while since I've commented around here - NaNo, school, concerts and all that shebang! But it felt so good to get back to reading your blog, Abigail! I've missed visiting your blog :D. (P.s. I will Lord willing try to email you back soon!)

    Reading 2013... my, I have to say that after seeing your list I feel like I have done no effort at all with my reading this year. I haven't read a single volume of the books you mentioned, but To Kill a Mockingbird has intrigued me so much, I want to give it a try. All this history! *gulps* I hope uni doesn't wreak total havoc on your fun-reading for too long. It has taken a long time for Sarah (who's a solid bookworm) to get back into the swing of pleasurable reading, after all these years of studying!

    How was Arabian Nights? I echo Jenny's comment 'Henry VIII Which Was Long And Tedious' I read that twice to make sure it wasn't a book titled that! Ooh, I just finished Dickens' A Christmas Carol which was such a nice treat, and made me want to get back to Charles Dickens' works - David Copperfield being the one I will most probably pick up first. Glad to see it has a touch of 'sniffity' to it

    :D

    What did I read? I guess like Elizabeth and Jenny, I will try and write up a post on my 2013 reading list myself soon as a follow up of yours :). The most notable works among them were, The Silmarillion (gah! It was so so so beautiful!!), Kidnapped which ended just as heartwarmingly as hoped for with stalwart Alan and brave Davie's comradeship :), North and South became a fast favourite when added to the fact I fell in love with the BBC movie, ohh, and I finally got started on Ann Elisabeth Stengl's writings with Heartless, Dragonwitch and the novella Goddess Tithe. She is good!

    About a month ago, I read Sutcliff's The Shining Company which actually made me cry, and finished With Christ in the School of Prayer, by Andrew Murray which was really provocative for me in regards to the prayer life. Very Highly Recommended!

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    1. Yep, Sutcliff will make you cry. Even if it has a happy ending, she'll make you cry.

      Yours is a nice haul! Kidnapped is one of my favorites. David Balfour/Catriona is significantly less action-packed, the charm resting more in Stevenson's style than in the plot, but I enjoyed it on the strength of the writing and the love I had already developed for the characters in the first book. Alan Breck is a brick. As for North & South, that is one of the few book-to-movie adaptations where I prefer the film. I felt the director was able to more fully develop the story and add some very nice touches, like the second proposal scene at the train station. I believe Mrs. Gaskell herself complained that she was rushed through the book, Dickens wanting it for his serial. Besides, Gaskell had this terrible love of killing off people! Between books, I prefer Wives and Daughters - even if I was beginning to feel murderous by the end due to her incessant use of "tete-a-tete."

      The Arabian Nights was...interesting. I'm glad I read it, because it's the sort of fundamental work from which so much inspiration can be and has been drawn. However, I think it should be read in bits and pieces: a story here, a story there. Reading straight through was a chore, and it became hard to keep a straight face while reading about a porter named Sinbad, who went to Baghdad, where he met a sailor named Sinbad. I think it ought to be read as a child, and then referenced later on - not plowed through the way I plow through things.

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  4. The Shining Company? Yes, one might as well rip one's heart out at the outset. It feels much the same.

    (Forgot to mention, Abigail: I love how magnanimous you were giving that slight concession that Wedgewood is "all right" for a Royalist. It is so good in you. Well done burying the hatchet.)

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    1. (Thank you. Thank you. I deserve a pat on the back, I know.)

      Honestly, unlike my feelings on the subject of Richard III, I'm pretty much Mr. Betwixt and Between on the Cavalier-Roundhead topic. What the Parliamentarians did is, from a historical and from a biblical standpoint, pretty shocking and hard to countenance - especially since most of them were professing believers. However, I can also see where Charles led them down the path to the trial and execution by his obstinacy and even treachery. He couldn't be trusted. I tend to think that, politically, there was no other recourse for Parliament, and that much of the fault for that lies with Charles. Whether it was morally right, on the other hand, is still up for debate.

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  5. You always manage to make me feel a little guilty—my numbers of books read are higher, but you've got all these serious, substantial works on your list. :) Anyway, I'm holding off on doing my overview till after New Year's. I'm going on blogging break for the holidays, but my post on top ten favorite books of the year is scheduled for the 31st.

    You've read some of my favorites this year—To Kill a Mockingbird, Rebecca, Wodehouse...And I know I've said this before, but I've got to locate a copy of The Grand Sophy soon. Operation Mincemeat sounds rather fascinating—WWII, right? I've been on a bit of a WWII kick lately myself.

    (Incidentally, I first read David Copperfield when I was quite young, pre-teen I think, and inadvertently read an abridged copy. As a result of that combination, I was rather hazy about the fates of certain characters for years afterwards.)

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    1. Eh. Much as I try to vary the types of books I read, sometimes pressures and stresses make me quietly sink into a corner with a good Wodehouse or Daddy-Long-Legs, which I just finished the other night for probably the tenth time. It's just that such kick-back-and-relax books are usually rereads for me, so I don't feature them here or on Goodreads.

      Rebecca was So Good. Oh, did I mention that already? So sorry. Yes, Operation Mincemeat is World War II, and as such, very unusual for me. I think you would probably enjoy it, though. Lots of espionage and crazy characters, and always very engaging. Pictures, too, and I love pictures.

      It amuses me now how editors attempt to make certain classics fit fare for young readers. Welp, there goes half of Dickens and all of Dumas and even bits and pieces of Austen...! Even watching the film adaptation of David Copperfield as a child, I really didn't have a clue what was going on with that subplot. And then you read it later and you're like, "Oh. Ohhhh. THAT'S what was going on." O_o

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    2. Oh, it wasn't even meant for young readers; I think it was a Readers' Digest condensed edition! Don't even get me started on abridged-for-children—I once saw a so-called copy of The Last of the Mohicans that a cousin brought home from their school library. I don't think I've gotten over the shock yet.

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  6. I've ordered my sister to read Sophy, too ;) I haven't read any of her mysteries, though. I loved the Black Arrow when I was younger, but it's been so many years since I've read it... O_o

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meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
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The White Sail's Shaking & The Running Tide: Follow a midshipman in the young U.S. Navy during the First Barbary War and a Syracusan woman who accidentally finds herself tumbled into the harsh world of life at sea.
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Tempus Regina: Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era.
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