Thursday, January 01, 2009

Best Reads of 2008

Today I received the e-mail from Watermark Books with their employees' lists of "Best Books Read in 2008". It sparked my curiosity, so I got out my list of books from this year and thought back over them. (In 2003, I started keeping a list of books I read in the back of my journal.)

I read 9 fewer books this year than last year. That's not surprising, as my life was busier this year, with volunteer activities and gardening, than it was last year. My general feeling throughout the year has been that the books I was reading weren't as memorable as last year's books, but when I started thinking of them one by one, I realized I had actually read quite a few gems.

Here are my favorites from among the 38 books that I remembered to write down:

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.
While I was reading this book, my feelings were that I really liked and admired the first section (eating), but felt that the second (praying) and third (loving) sections were too self-conscious. In dipping back into the book occasionally, when it has been referenced in conversations or in other books, I have found that it actually contains many good thoughts for me to chew on. (Pun somewhat intended.)

Sky Time in Gray's River by Robert Michael Pyle
I love the subtitle of this book, "Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place." Pyle writes of his home, and the people, plant and animal communities around it, in southwestern Washington. The particulars are very different from my spot here in southcentral Kansas, but sense of being embedded in the human and natural communities is very similar to what is so important to me. Two quotes from this book sum up the feelings that resonate in me as I read it, "I live where I do so I can look out or walk outside at any time and instantly be within 'nature'," (p. 6), and "I know of no better way to get to the heart of a place than through its phenology - the progression of the seasons as told by its animal and plant appearances," (p. 110).

Walking the High Ridge by Robert Michael Pyle
Sky Time... was so good that I ordered and read another book by Pyle. Walking the High Ridge is essentially his autobiography, especially as concerns his love of the environment and of writing. It fascinated me to read how this naturalist has been able to turn his passions into a way of life that not only supports him, but also allows him to awaken an answering awareness of and passion for nature in others.

Dark Nights of the Soul by Thomas Moore
I wasn't going to include this book in my list originally, but as I glanced through it, I realized that it's been speaking to me a lot this year. I've fought depression frequently throughout my adult life, and these past 2 years have been particularly difficult in that regard. This book both encourages the reader to "mine" such difficult times for ways to enrich your life and to live your life more deeply. One quote I particularly cherish, "The soul is fulfilled by the ordinary." (p. 298) As I write this, I'm looking outside at a particularly beautiful sunset filled with deep peach and coral clouds against a teal sky. The black silhouettes of the trees against all this color are sharply still except for the movement of a few last sparrows heading to roost. Even at this moment, my soul is being filled with the beauty of this particular "ordinary" sight.

Bleeding Kansas by Sara Paretsky
Not just a fast paced story with a particularly current conflict, this novel is gifted in catching and highlighting many of the paradoxical personalities living side by side in modern day Kansas...and probably in most small towns across our country.

Recipes for a Perfect Marriage by Morag Prunty
Both a cure for any tendency towards believing in "happily ever after" and a cautionary tale to appreciate what you have in your closest relationships, this story really made me think about reality vs. appearances in marriages, our own ability to affect our happiness through our expectations, and other similarly weighty subjects. Yet the story was well written and enjoyable, not the "downer" it so easily could have been.

In Praise of the Unfinished by Julia Hartwig
This collection of poems is by a Polish poet who is highly celebrated in her own country, but this is apparently the first time her poems have been translated into English. I chanced upon this collection one day in Barnes & Noble and picked it up on a whim. It's wonderful.

Thirst by Mary Oliver
Another collection of poems, this one made it through a doubly serendipitous selection this year. First, I picked it up at Barnes & Noble on the same day that I picked up Hartwig's book, also on a whim. (Although in the case of Mary Oliver, I know and love many of her poems, so my "whim" was grounded in the knowledge that I was likely to like at least a few of the poems in the book.) Then, one sleepless night when I had been thinking about what I wanted to do next during my life, I happened to pick up this book and open it. The first poem, "Messenger," starts off, "My work is loving the world," and seemed like a direct answer to my thoughts. The words still tumble around and around in my head.

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
In October, I wrote an entry about this book (and a lecture Prairiewolf and I attended by its author). It definitely rates on my "Best Reads of 2008" list.

My Antonia by Willa Cather
Another book that I blogged about after reading it this fall. Incredibly memorable, especially if you are a prairie person.

Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams
An interesting 3 part juxtaposition of mosaic building, studying prairie dogs, and visiting Rwanda. Just trying to decide what to write about this book puts me into a philosophical discussion with myself. An interesting look at both the best and worst in human nature.

A Simpler Way by Margaret Wheatley
This was recommended by a friend and is actually written for the business community. Without Kelly's recommendation, I would never have picked it up, but this book is excellent encouragement to reframe how we look at life and I'm very glad I read it. (I've already passed it along to another friend.) Instead of always looking for the one "right" answer, Wheatley proposes that we realize there are usually many possible "answers" to any one situation and suggests that we enjoy playing with life's various possibilities instead of constantly worrying about being "wrong." Life instantly becomes playful and creative, rather than feeling like one long exam which (in bad times) we feel we are flunking. A wonderful concept!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow
A story of life on the island of Guernsey during World War II, this tale is told entirely through letters back and forth between a variety of different correspondents. It's heart-warming, tragic, historic, and uplifting all at the same time - an excellent read that left me feeling wistful but warm, certain that love and community go on despite tragedy and sometimes horrific circumstances.

I like this exercise of looking back over what I've read this year. I feel like I'm reconnecting with friends! What have your favorite reads been this year?

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