Monday, January 2, 2017

Last Month’s Reading

I closed several books during the dark month of December, the dark month that is more festive and bright with celebration than any other—just one of the paradoxes of life. With all the Christmas preparation, I had several books to keep me company and to enhance the enjoyment of the season. This rounds up the wonderful pile of books that enriched my life in 2016.

1. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

If I had to pick five favorites of the year, this is up there. The title is not a spoiler because the tale of how those nine Americans got there and won is gripping. This nonfiction reads like a suspense fiction story. A lot of important things in life went by the wayside the day I read this one. If you want heroes and hope for your sons, here’s a gem. Picture young men deprived in childhood of common comforts due to the ravages of the Depression, sacrificing to get into college, and then battling brutal conditions to succeed as a rowing team in order to finish school and enter manhood. I’m not kidding, you have to read this book—and so do your own young men.

2. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare.

I read this with my 12-year-old son this fall and was gratified by his engagement with the story. We had read about Julius Caesar in our history books, in Plutarch’s Lives, but I knew he was on board when he would practice speeches from the play without being prompted and recite to me while I made dinner.

3. The Confession of Brother Haluin by Ellis Peters.

It struck me in early December that I hadn’t read a Brother Cadfael this year, and it was just the soothing mystery-solving intrigue I needed. This was a particularly intriguing story of a monk whose fall and near death from a roof sets off a series of events that reveal his past and bring resolution to his life in the present.

4. Village Christmas by Miss Read.

Here’s another plentiful series, but one I’ve never experienced before a friend sent me two of her series on audio as a Christmas present. It is reminiscent of Mitford and Cranford, simple, sweet stories just perfect for cold winter nights with a crackling fire and cup of tea. If you want comfort reading, Miss Read is a heartwarming author. This one is a Christmas tale of two spinsters whose perfectly ordered life takes a turn when the new neighbors have an unexpected gift for Christmas.

5. No Holly for Miss Quinn by Miss Read.

Another tale of the village of Fairacre and a working woman’s world altering when a Christmas emergency takes her to her brother’s chaotic vicarage. Her Christmas gift of service to them turns out to be a life changing attitude shift for her.

6. Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome.

My youngest and I started this series a year ago with the goal of reading one each summer. We began this one last summer, but it took us till December to get to the end. Still, when life is getting cold outside, it’s great to remember that summer frolics are coming again. If your children haven’t met the imaginative and courageous crew of Swallow yet, Ransome’s tales (based on his own childhood days in the lake district of England) of children who lived in a far quieter and freer world will inspire and entertain them. There’s just enough worry, just enough mishap, just enough, danger to make you keep reading, and lots of ordinary and satisfying normal kid interaction and fun to make the characters lives believable and the pace of the stories long and luxurious like summer days. This is a great series for boys and girls alike, from eight to 18 years, and gives modern children some valuable ideas about their capabilities.

7. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens.

As the year drew to a close, I was incredulous that I had gone a year without reading a Dickens and set about remedying that imbalance right away. This book was published in 19 installments originally. Therefore, reading a Dickens is equivalent to reading a six or seven novel series. I am constantly astounded at the variety of characters this author can invent. This particular story gives a lot of hope that greed and grasping for wealth can be overcome in individuals and change the course of events. There is something about reading the action-packed story at a
leisurely pace that somehow leaves me feeling so much more satisfied than the concise and snappy modern novel manages to do for me.

8. An Essays Towards a Philosophy of Education by Charlotte Mason.

I read Mason every day, and tramp around in all the volumes, jumping in and out according to my need of the moment, but this is the only one I read from the first to last page through this year. Many people feel it is the best to read first because she outlines and expands on her principles and summarizes her thoughts from a lifetime of educating, but what always strikes me is how consistent and cohesive her approach is, and one of my comforts and confidences in Mason rests in knowing that from Home Education, her first publication, to this last one, her method did not change.

9. New Grub Street by George Gissing.

Okay, I am not too proud to admit there is a great author of the nineteenth century I had never heard of till this year, but rather, am delighted to discover it. G. K. Chesterton considered him perhaps the greatest novelist of that century. He wrote 23 novels in the last 23 years of his life, so he definitely was prolific. I was absorbed in his story in this book, its plot and characters, and got so many ideas from what he was showing that I will have to return to this as its own blog post soon. For now, is it tantalizing enough just to say that the author was exploring the shift in reading and the publishing world of the nineteenth century? So my observations and fears for reading in our generation are not new. Novels continually reaffirm to me that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to man.

10. Manalive by G. K. Chesterton.

A 17-year-old boy in my book club (yes, there truly are teen boys who enjoy meeting with older married ladies to discuss novels!), wanted to read this for our December meeting. Like many of Chesterton’s books, I had to start over three or four times before I was tracking with him, but what a fascinating trail this was. Who can make the most obvious truths so clear and in such bizarre approaches to them that you laugh at yourself for having accepted so many ideas as obsolete or irrelevant as Mr. Chesterton? His piercing insights are always presented with such humor and brilliance that I am not only left with the impression of his marvelous mind, but also unforgettable lessons to carry with me thereafter.

11. You Are What You Love by James K. A. Smith.

I was introduced to this author in Desiring the Kingdom, which was one of our discussion books the first year I attended CMI. This past spring, I got to hear him speak at a local lecture offered by King University, hence, my subsequent purchase of this latest book. My husband and I read this together starting last April and just finishing the day after Christmas, but reading slowly was a plus for conversation and pondering. This philosopher puts philosophical truths in plain language for the layman and the ideas he explores in this book are revolutionary for our individual life, corporate worship, and destiny as a nation.

And now: on to a whole new year of reading!

For the joy of reading,



  1. I try to read a book by Dickens each year too - I love Our Mutual Friend, I think it is my favorite of his books that I've read so far. I read Little Dorrit last year (well, and A Christmas Carol, but we read that every year!), but I'm not sure what my Dickens pick will be this year.

    Thanks for mentioning Gissing - if Chesterton thought he was good, it must be worth reading something by him! And The Boys in the Boat sounds fascinating - that sort of non-fiction is so enjoyable and interesting. And we are big Ransome fans around here - we listened to them all on audiobook over the course of a little over a year. We were so sad when we finished the last one! We've even re-listened to a few of them here and there too.

    1. I love hearing from fellow reading maniacs. Or, are we the sane ones?
      It's lovely to meet people who enjoy the same books, isn't it?

  2. Liz,
    I always enjoy your lists. I was tickled to see that you are also reading through Swallows and Amazons during summers as that is what we are doing, too! We will read our last one when my son is college age - hard to imagine now.


  3. Oh my goodness, Liz, you are always introducing me to new authors and new books in such a way that I both salivate and despair--I can't wait to read them, and when will I have time???? I need to pull out the Ransome books again this summer for my kids--we've read two, but I missed Peter Duck last summer. And Boys in the Boat--I've got three boys; so that one just moved up the list. And who was that 19th century author you'd never heard of? That book sounds fascinating--can't wait for your full blog post about it! And I haven't read a Brother Cadfael in a decade. And Miss Read. It's been a couple years since I enjoyed her company. And we're reading Plutarch's Caesar now; we'll read Shakespeare's play in the fall. And...and...and! And I'm so glad I'm not the only one who has to read Chesterton four times before I know what he's talking about (though once I got into Orthodoxy, I was riveted; mostly I think my mind had atrophied from all the non-living books I fed it in my 20's. Sigh. But never again. Life's too short to read bad books!)

    1. Kimberlee,

      It is a wonderful and terrible thing to be a reading addict. Just get a pile and read a little in all of them every week and you will enjoy more and read more than you think.

      So glad to have reading companions.