My Top 50 Books from Last 10 Years

The end of the year and this decade arrived unexpectedly. Well, not completely unexpectedly for the former, but the whole ‘where did the twenty teens go?’ thing caught me by surprise. I’ve been reading and listening to ‘decade in review’ articles and podcasts for the last couple of weeks. Which inspired me to analyze my reading of 965 books over the last ten years.

The following compilation of ‘Top Five’ books for each year starting in 2010, do not include my occasional re-reads of favorites, like the works of Tolkien, Lewis, Jordan, Donaldson and Modesitt.

2010 (read 102) 

  1. Blackout/All Clear by Willis (Hugo/Nebula/Locus Best Novel Awards) 
  2. Under Heaven by GGK 
  3. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Stein 
  4. A Civil Compaign by Bujold 
  5. Breath and Bone/Flesh and Spirit by Berg 

2011 (read 75) 

  1. Wars of Light and Shadow (books 5-9) by Wurts 
  2. The Lions of Al-Rassan by GGK 
  3. The Wise Man’s Fear by Rothfuss 
  4. The Empire Trilogy by Feist & Wurts 
  5. Ready Player One by Cline 
Continue reading “My Top 50 Books from Last 10 Years”

Book Review: Testament of Youth by Brittain (4 stars)

Testament of Youth

by Vera Brittain

4 out of 5 stars

Read in January/February 2015

Synopsis (via GoodReads):

In 1914, just as war was declared, 20 year-old Vera Brittain was preparing to study at Oxford. Four years later, her life—and that of her whole generation—had been irrevocably changed in a way that no one could have imagined in the tranquil pre-war era. Testament of Youth is Brittain’s account of how she lost the man she loved, nursed the wounded, survived those agonizing years, and emerged into an altered world. A passionate record of a lost generation, it made Brittain one of the best-loved writers of her time. It still retains the power to shock, move, and enthrall readers today.

My Thoughts:

I heard about this book during the inaugural discussion of The Things They Carried by O’Brien last fall.  The professor leading the discussion listed it as one of the better memoirs written post-conflict (didn’t matter what conflict).  Continue reading “Book Review: Testament of Youth by Brittain (4 stars)”

Big Read Wrap-Up

The Lansing Community Library completed a successful Big Read of O’Brien’s The Things They Carried with a writing memoir workshop led by the same professor who moderated the panel discussion back in December.  I took copious notes, but sadly no group photos.  The workshop was well attended and I recorded the audio portion (as I can’t always take notes fast enough) and include it here for your enjoyment.  In fact, I’m not sure where I put my notes.

Raw Recording of Memoir Writing Workshop

And, just for completeness’ sake, I’ll include the raw recording of the second group discussion led by a local English professor from the University of St. Mary:

Raw Recording of Second Big Read Book Discussion

I attended all the events and enjoyed all of them. I’m looking forward to the next adult reading program the library cooks up.

Article: Animated Film On The ‘Kamikaze Plane’ Hits A Nerve In Asia

Animated Film On The ‘Kamikaze Plane’ Hits A Nerve In Asia

http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2013/11/16/245068512/animated-film-on-the-kamikaze-plane-hits-a-nerve-in-asia

A new Miyazaki film causing some controversy in Asia.  Hope I don’t have to wait years for the subtitled or dubbed version to hit America.

Posted from WordPress for Android via my Samsung smartphone. Please excuse any misspellings. Ciao, Jon

Book Review: A Walk in the Woods by Bryson (3 Stars)

A Walk in the Woods WalkInWoodsBrysonby Bill Bryson

3 out of 5 stars

Read in August 2013 for the Stranger than Fiction book club sponsored by the Kansas City Public Library

Brief Summary:  Stretching from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail offers some of America’s most breathtaking scenery. After living for many years in England, Bill Bryson moved back to the United States and decided to reacquaint himself with his country by taking to this uninterrupted “hiker’s highway.” Before long, Bryson and his infamous walking companion, Stephen Katz, are stocking up on insulated long johns, noodles and manuals for avoiding bear attacks as they prepare to set off on a walk that is both amusingly ill-conceived and surprisingly adventurous. John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and Peter Jenkins never took a hike like this. A Walk in the Woods showcases Bryson at the height of his comic powers. Meeting up with characters such as Beulah and her fearsome husband, “Bubba T. Flubba,” readers risk snakebite and hantavirus to trudge through swollen rivers, traipse up mountain steps, and develop a new reverence for cream sodas and hot showers. But Bryson also uses his acute powers of observation to conjure a poignant backdrop of silent forests and sparkling lakes, thereby making a gentle but unforgettable plea for the ecological treasures we are in danger of losing. Fresh, illuminating, and uproariously funny, A Walk in the Woods is travel writing at its very best.

Notes from Discussion Group:

Our leader, Richard, began our discussion by noting Bryson’s book made a good summer read and was definitely lighter than last month’s tome on Lewis and Clark’s expedition.  His first question asked if any of us had read any other book by Bryson.  None of us had, so Richard assured us that many of Bryson’s books are humorous.

His next question asked us if any of us had ever hiked before.  Richard had and at least one or two other people had hiked.  One reader even brought photos from their hike on the Appalachian Trail (AT).  We observed that deciding to hike the AT was a major undertaking for an amateur hiker.  We were curious if Bryson received a grant or other remuneration as an incentive to hike the trail.  The author is quite a prolific write, so it’s not inconceivable.  Richard mentioned that after A Walk in the Woods was published, Bryson received some criticism because he did not finish hiking the trail.

How did their treatment of Mary Ellen make you feel?

  • Many of us didn’t think they should have left her like they did
  • The talkative third wheel
  • Could have left her in a more populated area
  • She was an adult and knew the risks of hiking alone

We discussed the criticisms of Bryson’s depiction of southerners, specifically mentioning the incident with the Trans Am and 3/4 empty bottle of Wild Turkey.  One reader spent much of the hour searching for a paragraph that denigrated Georgia or Georgians, but she never did locate it.  I didn’t have an ebook edition so I couldn’t do a search through the text.  Bryson also poked (or slammed) Thoreau, which seems harsh coming from an author and a New Englander.

Why did Katz join the hike?

  • desperate
  • Running from life/debts

Did you like the style, where the author provides non-narrative bits?

  • history
  • conservation
  • research
  • roads built by the Forestry Department

I liked the non-narrative bits and noted to the group that this seems to be a ‘trend’ in non-fiction, at least all the non-fiction I’ve been reading and/or listening to for the last year or so.

Bryson wasn’t your typical hiker.  He didn’t really appreciate nature.  From comments from other hikers in the group, most hikers hike to experience the beauty of nature and wildlife.  Bryson, on the other hand, seemed to approach hiking the AT as something to check off a list.  Our leader read this section out loud to the group as an example:

Life takes on a neat simplicity, too. Time ceases to have any meaning. When it is dark, you go to bed, and when it is light again you get up, and everything in between is just in between. It’s quite wonderful, really.

You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation, “far removed from the seats of strife,” as the early explorer and botanist William Bartram put it. All that is required of you is a willingness to trudge.

Tranquil tedium quote.

Somewhat of a conflicted statement.  Yet, Bryson and Katz had their ‘Come to Jesus’ moment in Maine when they decided to ‘stop pretending we are mountain men when we are not.’

One of our readers vacationed on the beach and would often laugh out loud while reading.  Her friends insisted that she share what was so funny, so she ended up reading nearly the entire book out loud while sunning near the surf.

Did it bother you that they only completed 870 miles (39%) of the AT?

That distance is equivalent to walking from the Country Club Plaza to Buffalo, New York!  Still, it bothered me, and my husband, that he didn’t finish the trail.

Would you read more of Bryson’s books?

Our general consensus was yes.  Suggested readings included A Short History of the Earth and At Home, a history of the rooms in your house.

Interesting Tidbits for Further Reading or Viewing:

Reader’s Favorite Outtakes:

Our leader’s favorite bit involved the shoe lace incident with the yuppy campers.

Another reader or two got a kick out of the author poking fun at southerners.

My favorite bit was when Katz drug his bulk and baggage upstairs the night before they embarked and Bryson looked at his wife and says ‘Don’t say anything.’

My husband thought the author’s obsession with all that could go wrong on the trail in the first part of the book provided the most laughs.

Personal Observations:

Neither my husband nor I thought this was a great book.  Yes, it had it’s moments, but I consider it a weaker non-fiction offering than what we’ve read as a group so far this year.  I’m also a bit perturbed in that I prefer to listen to non-fiction, rather than reading it (either printed or via ereader) and the audiobook I checked out from the library happened to be an abridged edition read by the author.  I detest abridgments and I’m not overly fond of authors reading their own work.  Bryson didn’t do a bad job of narration and could import appropriate dramatic and humorous overtones, but a professional voice actor he is not.  I guess that’s less important in the non-fiction world, but diction and elocution are still a plus.  My husband did not care for his voice at all, often characterizing it as a bit whiny.

The best parts of the book turned out to be the first and last sections, where both the author and Katz hiked together.  The middle section drug on, almost torturing us, like that section of the AT in Pennsylvania.  The last part, where Katz went missing, I felt, was very well written.  Bryson almost had me convinced that Katz had committed suicide, but thankfully I was proved wrong.

I’m not sure I could recommend this book to other readers.  As I’ve said before, non-fiction is not my normal reading experience.  I joined this group to broaden my reading horizons.  This venture down the AT with Bill Bryson wandered a bit, sometimes stumbled, but did shine occasionally.  Hence, my three star rating.  It was a good read, but not a great one.

Next Up for Stranger Than Fiction:

AboutThisLifecoverAbout This Life: journeys on the threshold of memory by Barry Lopez

Stranger Than Fiction

Sometimes humorous. Sometimes serious. Always nonfiction.

When: Every Fourth Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Where: Plaza Branch
Contact: Dick Henderson at 816.701.3481

Book Review: Unbroken by Hillenbrand (4 Stars)

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

4 out of 5 stars

Read in June 2013

Unbroken was the May (and unexpectedly June) 2013 selection for Stranger Than Fiction book discussion group sponsored by the Kansas City Public Library. I covered all the bases on this one, trying to get my husband to read along with me, but alas his health took a turn for the worse during this time, so the hardcover edition I checked out from the library for him sat gathering dust.  Meanwhile, I alternated between the ebook edition, checked out through the library’s Overdrive app on my Android smartphone, and the audiobook on CD (also checked out from the library).  I much prefer listening to non-fiction than reading it.  Nothing puts me to sleep faster than non-fiction, but I  soon became ensnared by the riveting, nearly unbelievable facts, told in Unbroken.

Earlier this year, I joined the Stranger Than Fiction book group because I felt I needed to expand my reading horizons.  I often find myself in a repetitive reading rut, gorging on epic fantasy or the occasional fun space opera, but nothing much else of substance.  The only non-fiction I regularly imbibe in are technical manuals for the software I support at work.  I’ve read so many of those, I think I could do technical writing in my sleep.

Unbroken often made me wince, and cry, and despair for an end to the torture and cruelty.   I learned things about the Pacific conflict during World War II that I did not learn in school, nor from countless war movies I’ve watched over the last three decades.  On the one hand, I’m appalled at the treatment of our POWs by the Japanese.  On the other, I’m disappointed in our education system for focusing too much time on the European theater (because we have a collective societal racial bias towards the Western World?).

Some of the discussion questions from our group meeting follow:

What made it so Louie could survive?

One reader began discussing something he’d read about varying levels of testosterone.   We discussed Mac’s panicky eating of all the chocolate, where one of us quipped ‘death by chocolate’ and immediately retracted by stating ‘How dare I?’ because none of us knows how we would react in a similar situation.

What did you find most remarkable about three survivors on the ocean?

Our discussion leader’s immediate answer was ‘not eating Mac.’  Forty-seven days on a raft, half of their body weight lost, he asked us if we would consider cannibalism?  He further went on to define two different types of cannibalism: necro and homicidal.  I jumped in to this discussion, stating that after reading The Terror by Dan Simmons, I’d never, ever resort to cannibalism.  Some discussion resulted in the medical research and reasoning for why it is never a good idea to eat your fellow-man.

In the 30s and 40s, were Germany and Japan’s acts of mass atrocities the worst in history? What causes a society to stoop to this? Do we all carry this capacity for cruelty around inside of us?

Discussion resulted about authoritarian or totalitarian regimes and people being like sheep (even today) and preferring to be led around and told what to do.  Our leader provided a quote from Conservatives Without Conscience by John Dean.  I don’t have the exact words from my notes, but something about they ‘like being in charge’ and the ‘followers like feeling safe.’  One reader talked about sociopaths and psychopaths making up 20% of the population (now and then).  Another reader mentioned an experiment conducted in the 60s or 70s where a group of people were divided up in to prisoners and guards and another study about blue and brown-eyed people.

Louie appeared to be the beneficiary of several miracles: his escape from the plane; the bullets missing all occupants of the raft during several strafing runs; and, singing angels in the clouds overhead.  Someone made mention of the Best Years of Our Lives movie.

Would Louie have been justified in plotting to kill the Bird?  Would that have been moral? Would he have felt better had he returned to Japan?

His anger is justifiable and understandable, a normal reaction to being wronged.  Our discussion leader quoted several passages from a Guideposts article written by the author: “The Power of Forgiveness”  Another reader compared Unbroken to the movies “The Grey” and “Life of Pi.”

∞ ∞ ∞

Next month we read Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose.

Book Review: My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business by Dick Van Dyke

My Lucky Life in and Out of Show BusinessMy Lucky Life in and Out of Show Business by Dick Van Dyke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I barely read any non-fiction (outside of the technical writing found in information technology reference guides) in any given year. When I do branch out away from fiction, I prefer to read a biography, autobiography or memoir, or a history book, usually on a particular brief period.

I breezed through Dick Van Dyke‘s autobiography quickly, probably because it felt like he sat in my living regaling me with tales from his past in his engaging and witty manner. His charm and good will bubbled out of the pages. Even the troubles and tragedies he confessed only evoked my compassion or caring in my assessment of him.

A couple of excerpts that really struck a chord for me:

I was all about living a kind, righteous, moral, forgiving, and loving life seven-days a week, not just the one day when you went to church. … And if there’s not a higher power, no one’s going to be worse for the wear for his or her effort. Was there one way? No, not as far as I could tell — other than to feel loved, to love back, … as simple as making sure you spend time helping make life a little better for other people.

(from the Family Values chapter)

A few years ago, I told Esquire magazine that the Buddhists boiled it down to the essentials. They said you need three things in life: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for. The message does not get any clearer. I heard walt Disney, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Carl Reiner all say the same thing in their own way. Hope is life’s essential nutrient, and love is what gives life meaning. I think you need somebody to love and take care of, and someone who loves you back. In that sense, I think the New Testament got it right. So did the Beatles. Without love, nothing has any meaning.

(from the Curtain Calls chapter)

When I finished the book, I wanted to give him a big hug, but of course, I’m too far away to do that. So I’ll send him a little love for all the laughs and love he’s shared unconditionally with me, with all of us really, for some many decades. As long as I’ve been alive, there’s always been a Dick Van Dyke to make me smile.

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