Wednesday, December 28, 2011

top book recommendations of 2011

This year has been a year of voracious reading (thank you, Flathead Library!).  I’ve always appreciated the recommendations of other serious readers, so I would like to share with you my top book recommendations from a year of reading…

The Hunger Games—This Young Adult novel by Suzanne Collins was one of the most capturing, can't-put-it-down books I read this year.  The plot is mesmerizing, dark and troubling—and yet not too explicit (not a single curse word or sex scene), owing to its status as a YA book.

In case you have been living in a cave and don’t know the story: Katniss Everdeen lives in the apocalyptic world of Panem, in District 12.  To punish the people of Panem for past revolts, each year their rulers of the Capitol draw two names of tweens/teens from each district.  The youths chosen are entered in the Hunger Games, a televised fight to-the-death competition.  Each Hunger Games leaves only one survivor. 

When Katniss’ little sister, Prim’s, name is drawn, she self-sacrificially volunteers to take her place.  Meanwhile, Peeta, a local boy who has been in love with Katniss for years is also chosen.  He must go into the Games against the girl who he loves.  Oh, the tension!  Katniss’ love for Prim and Peeta’s love for Katniss form a stark contrast to their world of senseless violence.  The twists and turns in the plot are constant.  But the real pull of the story is the constant moral dilemmas thrust before the characters.  For me, the plot called to mind current reality TV with its shameless embrace of entertainment at the cost of emotional violence to others (see The Bachelor or Big Brother, for instance).  Might our own culture one day turn to killing as entertainment as well (the ancient Romans did)?  The Real Housewives suicide this year may be the start.

I also read the next two books in the Trilogy: Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games) and Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, Book 3) and while they were very good, neither captured me as much as The Hunger Games.  I am eagerly anticipating the movie and think (despite the critics) that Jennifer Lawrence is the perfect actress to play Katniss.  If you have seen  her scrappy, tough performance in Winter's Bone you know why. 

Once Upon a River: A Novel—The great American novel finds its home with author Bonnie Jo Campbell.  In her captivating central character, Margo Crane, we have a female Huck Finn, voyaging down the river as she grows into her own skin and comes of age. 

I had the pleasure of seeing Bonnie Jo Campbell speak this year at Missoula’s Festival of the Book.  She said that in a previous book Margo Crane had been a side character, but her character was the one people (especially men!) were always asking about: a beautiful, silent teenage girl who lived a hardscrabble life on the river, trapped animals, and was a perfect shot with a rifle (in retrospect, she reminds me in spirit of the fierce Katniss Everdeen).

Margo’s father is killed in an act of violence related to her molestation by an uncle, so she flees from her family on a small boat on the Stark River of Michigan, taking off to look for her mother.  Along the way, she meets a variety of men who all fall in love (or in lust) with her.  Margo is a sad character in all she has had to endure, but a courageous one in her ability to survive and her imperviousness to the pressure to be anything but herself.  Yet, she is locked in a world of silence and utterly bereft of community.  Finally, the person who helps bring her out of her shell somewhat is an unlikely friend: a crusty old codger in a wheelchair, elderly and dying.  This book called to mind Winter's Bone for me as well; it must be the year of the fierce heroine in literature and film.  Once Upon a River is an American masterpiece worthy of re-reading over and over. 

Room: A Novel—In this dread-filled, tenderness-infused novel by Emma Donoghue, our narrator is the 5-year old son of an abduction victim and her abductor.  It reminded me of the Jaycee Duggard story and brilliantly portrayed the power of a mother’s love in the midst of the worst of circumstances.  Despite my worries that the five year old voice would be gimmicky, instead I found it an effective way to communicate innocence and gentleness in the midst of a savage situation.  And the biggest surprise of the book was the way the drama actually heated up once the tiny family was rescued.  Unforgettable.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks—In 1951, a poor black woman from the south named Henrietta Lacks died from aggressive cervical cancer at the age of 30.  Without her consent, cells were taken from her tumor, named HeLa by scientists, and reproduced over and over again.  They were the first immortal cells ever grown, and they still exist, used in countless scientific experiments over the years.  Not only were their impact on research immense, but the vast number of cells boggles the mind: enough to weigh 50 million metric tons.  But the unknowing donor of all of these cells is buried in an unmarked grave and no one from her family ever benefited from the large sums of money her cells yielded.

Rebecca Skloot brings together Henrietta’s story, her family’s story, and modern-day medical science’s story in a captivating mix.  I felt the real pathos and pain that the neglect of Henrietta’s wishes and of her family brought.  I was perhaps most touched by the friendship that developed between Skloot and Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah.  And I was brought to wonder and worry about what is being done with my information and cell matter without my consent, even in this day of medical advancement.

Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness—This first-rate historical psychological profile by Joshua Shenk is a few years old, but it was influential enough in my thinking this year that it got its own blog post about the impact of depression on leadership and accomplishment.  I was deeply encouraged by this hero of history, who allowed his deep inner troubles to mold him into greatness.  I appreciated the opportunity to see Lincoln through the course of his life and how his reaction to depression changed, although the depression itself did not really go away permanently.  Every person who has battled depression should read this book.

A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness—This book by Nassir Ghaemi was partially based on Shenk’s book; Ghaemi and Shenk are reportedly friends.  I actually found Lincoln’s Melancholy to be the better book; it contained far more research, depth, and ability to analyze its own argument from the other side than did A First-Rate Madness.  However, this is still an important book.

Ghaemi’s thesis is that in trying times (such as our own), we need leaders who are a little “different,” leaders who suffer from moderate mental illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder.  He says that the empathy, resilience, and realism found in depressives and the creativity and imperviousness to criticism found in bipolar individuals are especially well-suited leadership traits for times of crisis.  By contrast, he suggests that the emotionally balanced individual is best suited for national seasons of peace.  I found his argument fascinating and wondered what it suggested for the current presidential race; after all, if we were to follow Ghaemi’s thesis, we should seek out leaders like Newt Gingrich or possibly even Ron Paul (surely the most creative of the candidates). 

While I am encouraged by Ghaemi’s argument, I also find myself questioning it and wishing he had provided more self-critique.  Just as a leader who is mentally “off-balance” may provide unique solutions in trying times, he or she may also blow up a government.  I didn’t find the analysis of what made a Lincoln different from a Hitler ultimately meaningful or helpful.  However, what I did find helpful was this unique way of looking at leadership, as well as Ghaemi’s questioning of what the “mental normalcy” really counts for anyway.  For example, if a person is optimistic to the point of being unrealistic about the challenges ahead, he or she may be labeled “normal,” while a depressive who sees with realism would be labeled “not normal.”  Ghaemi questions whether our labels are ultimately helpful and I think he makes an excellent point that another look should be taken at what constitutes normalcy.

This book is flawed but its argument is important enough and stayed with me enough that I still include it in my list of most recommended books from the past year.

A Stolen Life: A Memoir—I was both dreading and looking forward to reading this account of abduction and life in captivity by Jaycee Duggard.  Although the stories of sexual abuse, neglect, manipulation, and abject loneliness are horrifying and nauseating, I was left with admiration for a new hero.  I cannot imagine how this young woman managed to survive, managed to love and raise two daughters, managed to simply raised her head each day.  But she did.  She is a model of resilience and toughness with a tender, gentle heart.  This book is raw and honest and sorrowful...but most of all, it is brave.  Powerful reading for anyone who has suffered adversity., but especially those who have suffered abuse.  I particularly appreciated her honesty about her ongoing recovery.  Her survival is a triumph of uncommon resilience and bravery.

Brave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle with Anorexia—This book is a mother’s account of her daughter’s battle with anorexia.  It opened my eyes to what it is like inside anorexia.  Harriet Brown’s descriptions are vivid and empathetic.  The book helped me to understand that the anorexic is actually obsessed with food, desperately wanting to eat, but absolutely terrified to do so.  As someone who has struggled with other irrational anxieties and compulsions, I think I can empathize with the heart of what this disorder is about.  And as a mother I can also empathize with the fear and anger when something is ripping apart your beloved child.  Despite the fearful descriptions of anorexia, this book provides a lot of hope.  Although anorexia will always be something Kitty (Harriet Brown's daughter) struggles with, recovery is possible and her daughter has already experienced a lot of it.  The Browns come to find family-based treatment is most effective for their daughter and the information they provide would be immeasurably helpful to any family who has a loved one struggling with this disorder.  I also wish that every pastor, counselor and teacher would read this book.  I would highly recommend it to any family who needs advice now about a child who is wasting away before their eyes.

Christian Books
One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are—I would describe this book as life-changing and I have written at length about the effect it had on my life.  As you know, I participate in the Multitudes on Monday blog link-up and share weekly the blessings God has given me.  What I appreciated most about this book was that it was not a sunny Pollyannish volume of glib answers.  Ann Voskamp has suffered and suffered big—losing a sister as a child, battling depression.  She has banged hard into the questions that life brings us and the whys that we bring to God.  And that is why her poetic revelations about thanksgiving are so meaningful.  She has “been there and done that.”  We can trust her.  I got a copy of this book for Christmas and I plan to mark it up and read it over and over.

Boundaries with Kids: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Children—This is another older book, but it was the best book I read on parenting last year, so I had to include it.  After confronting disappointing parenting books that focused overly on spanking and Biblical proof-texting (as opposed to a broad Biblical view of parenting), this book was a breath of fresh air.  It provided strong and helpful guidance from the big-picture view of parenting.  It helped me to reinforce some core convictions I already had about parenting (such as the idea that the pain of discipline may hurt but is not ultimately harmful).  I think spanking might have been mentioned in passing but it did not figure prominently in the book and other discipline methods were emphasized far more.

Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader's Eye-Opening Journey across the Life Line (Focus on the Family Books)—This account of a Planned Parenthood clinic director’s journey to conversion and embrace of the pro-life movement should shape the future of pro-life activism.  Abby Johnson emphasizes the importance that the loving prayer and witness of Christians had on her conversion.  There was also divine intervention: a kairos moment when her eyes were opened to see the reality of what abortion is.  But without the loving witness of Christians, she would have had nowhere to go when she decided to leave Planned Parenthood.  She emphasizes the importance of showing caring concern for one’s adversaries on the other side of the abortion fence.  Those who carried placards of aborted fetuses only drove her deeper into the pro-choice movement.  But those who deeply cared for her and tried to do all they could to help her made a life-changing difference.  I also very much appreciated Johnson’s gracious recognition that so many of the people who work at Planned Parenthood are compassionate people who care about women and want to make a difference.  This is vastly different from the caricatures often painted of clinic workers in conservative circles.  I appreciated Johnson’s acknowledgment of positive motives, even if the actions are unwise and finally harmful. 

Well, that’s it for me.  Undoubtedly when I post this list, I will realize that I have forgotten a very important book somewhere down the line!  But to the best of my ability, these are my most recommended books from last year’s reading.  Please join in the conversation and share your recommendations as well in the comments section below!

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