Top 5 Books of 2015

I did not read nearly enough books to have a top 10 list like last year. But I feel very strongly about all the books on this year’s top 5 list. The books are listed in order, with #1 being my favorite book of 2015. So here it is:

1) Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

This may have been my 4th or 5th time reading this book, but it still remains my third favorite book of all time (after Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Moby-Dick by Herman Melville). I was first introduced to this book by my 8th grade English teacher. He mentioned the book in passing, and since I’ve always loved travel stories I checked it out from the library. Over the years as I have matured intellectually I have gained a greater appreciation of the book. But it was only this past year that I felt like I truly understood the overall message of Gulliver’s Travels. If you are interested and have already read the book, I wrote a spoiler-y reflection on Gulliver’s adventures in Houhnhnm Land where I talked about what I felt was the overall message of the book.

2) Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot

This play reminded me so much of Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw. Thomas Becket and the four tempters are such memorable characters, and I loved that the play was written in verse. It was epic in the truest sense of the word. Thomas Becket represents way more than a martyr. In only 88 pages of verse, Eliot accomplishes the impressive feat of describing the history of the conflict between Church and State in England through the life of one archbishop.

3) My Antonia by Willa Cather

Can Willa Cather write a bad book? Death Comes for the Archbishop was my 3rd favorite book in 2014. My Antonia was just as incredible. The story is quiet but packs a real punch. It is the coming-of-age story of Antonia Shimerda and her friend Jim Burden (the narrator). The lifelike characters and the lyrical narrative combine to produce what I believe is one of the greatest works of American fiction.

4) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Gileadcover.jpg

I don’t often read books that have come out in the past few years. Gilead won the Pulitzer in 2005, but I have only heard about it in the past year. Robinson’s writing reminds me so much of Cather’s. There is no real plot, but I found so many memorable passages in this book. In 2016, I plan on reading her book of essays The Death of Adam and the companion to Gilead, Lila.

5) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

As Dickens’ penultimate work, Great Expectations lacks many of the weaknesses commonly found in his earlier works. The characters are well-developed and there are no meaningless plot points. Hard Times is still my favorite book by Dickens but Great Expectations is a close second.

 

 

Review of Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age

What was it about?

Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age by Fiona Maddocks is a creative nonfiction work about the life of the 12th century mystic, abbess, and now saint Hildegard of Bingen. The 12th century was a very important time in the history of Western Europe and the Latin church. Scholasticism emerged at the end of the 11th century and conflicted with the older monastic theologies. The powerful and famed cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux founded monasteries, mentored a pope (Eugene III), and was influential in the careers of numerous religious and theologians. Universities also started popping up in major cities. Kings fought against the pope for more independence and power over their people.

Hildegard started her life as an anchorite at the age of 8 or 12, under the direction of a girl only 4 years her senior Jutta of Sponheim. She had visions from a young age but kept them hidden for many years at the abbey of Disibodenburg. When she finally revealed them, Jutta had already died and Hildegard had been made abbess of a community of noble sisters. Over the next several decades, she founded a monastery (Rupertsburg), composed chants, and authored several books covering topics ranging from medicine to spirituality. Because she was mostly illiterate, her books were written and edited by her secretaries Volmar and (later) Guibert of Gembloux. Hildegard was not afraid to write to the Archbishop of Mainz or the pope to get what she wanted. Well-researched and in straightfoward language, Fiona Maddocks tells the story of one of the most powerful and controversial women in history – only canonized a saint in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI.

What did I think of it?

I am usually not a fan of creative nonfiction. I prefer academic works because they have a clear thesis and are peer-reviewed. But Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age lacked the enthusiasm I often encounter in creative nonfiction. It is not a hagiography in either the religious or the secular sense. Hildegard is portrayed with her faults and is nothing like the way she has been portrayed by feminists or New Age writers such as Matthew Fox. She was powerful but also quite conservative – holding some views that would be considered today as unacceptable in any circle. My favorite parts of the biography were the passages from Hildegard’s books and letters. I also appreciated Maddock’s commentaries about the authenticity of the source material.

Maddocks does not attempt to analyze Hildegard’s visions, which would seem to be a great weakness since Hildegard is famous for her visions, but Maddocks is a Classic Music critic for the Observer, so she probably does not have the theological background to do justice to Hildegard’s visions. The sections about medicine and sexuality are so amusing. Our understanding of these fields have definitely improved a lot in the past 800 years. I have admired Hildegard of Bingen for so many years and remember being excited when she was canonized in 2012. I am glad her story is being told, and I look forward to reading soon her most important book of visions Scivias. I currently own a Hildegard of Bingen reader that I dip in and out of. Even if you are not religiously inclined, you will enjoy Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age. It gives a good overview of her  life and thought.

Review of The Phantom Tollbooth

What was it about?

Milo is bored. He is no longer interested in the toys and books he owns. Suddenly, he notices a package in the corner of his room. As it is neither Christmas nor his birthday, Milo doesn’t know what the package is for, but he is curious to unwrap it. The package contains a turnpike tollbooth with instructions for constructing it. It also includes highway signs and coins for paying tolls. Milo gets inside a toy car, drives up to the tollbooth, and is transported to a world in which words are food, watchdogs keep time, and numbers are mined but real gems discarded. In this Kingdom of Wisdom, two brothers (King Azaz the unabridged and the Mathemagician) live on opposite sides of the kingdom because of their rivalry over whether words or numbers are more important. Unfortunately, the rivalry led to the banishment of their adopted sisters Princesses Rhyme and Reason to the Castle in the Air. With King Azaz’s support, Milo, the watchdog Tock, and a prideful insect named Humbug set off for the Castle in the Air to rescue Princesses Rhyme and Reason and bring peace and harmony back to the Kingdom of Wisdom.

What did I think of it?

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is replete with wordplay, metaphors, and common expressions. I personally enjoy didactic tales for children wrapped up as fables/fantasy stories. The Phantom Tollbooth is of this tradition. It is witty, and insightful. Children can enjoy meeting the wacky monsters, and teenagers and adults can pick up on all the clever wordplay. Parts reminded me of La Grammaire est une Chanson Douce (Grammar is a Sweet, Gentle Song) by Erik Orsenna, which I read for one of my French classes last semester. Parts also reminded me of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Disney film Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land. The illustrations by Jules Feiffer brought the story to life. They were an essential component of the story because they helped me imagine the creatures in the Kingdom of Wisdom. I highly recommend The Phantom Tollbooth.

Favorite Quotes

“Time is a gift, given to you, given to give you the time you need, the time you need to have the time of your life.”

“You can’t improve sound by having only silence. The problem is to use each at the proper time.”

“Infinity is a dreadfully poor place. They can never manage to make ends meet.”

 

Review of Great Expectations

What was it about?

Philip Pirrip (a.k.a. Pip) is an orphan boy raised by his hot-tempered sister Georgiana Maria (referred to in the story as Mrs. Joe ) and her blacksmith husband Joe Gargery. Pip often spends his afternoons in the cemetery where his parents and other siblings are buried. One day he meets an escaped convict who asks him for a file and some food. Pip steals the items for the convict, but the latter is shortly thereafter arrested and deported to New South Wales. Pip’s family faces another tragedy when Mrs. Joe is attacked from behind by someone with a hammer; she becomes paralyzed and has to be cared for by her husband and a young girl named Biddy.

Nearby, there lives at Satis House a wealthy spinster named Miss Havisham. She always wears a wedding gown and one shoe, and has a ward named Estella. Miss Havisham invites Pip to visit Satis House. He visits frequently, but feels slighted by Estella. Finally, Miss Havisham arranges for him to become apprenticed to Joe Gargery. Pip does not receive this news with joy. He notices that Estella looks down on him for being poor and illiterate. He wants to be more than a blacksmith. One day, Pip is told by a lawyer named Mr. Jaggers that he has great expectations; he has been given a fortune from an anonymous donor. Pip abandons his family and moves in with Matthew Pocket, Miss Havisham’s cousin, to enjoy his wealth among a more sophisticated crowd.

What did I think of it?

The Christmas season is a great time to read Dickens. His stories are always mysterious and creepy. Miss Havisham is one of the creepiest characters Dickens ever wrote. She has a secret that affects the way she interacts with Pip and Estella. Great Expectations is one of my favorite stories by Dickens. Each character, including the narrator (Pip), is complex. Admittedly, there are parts that drag but even though Dickens says a lot, there are no wasted scenes or characters. Every character and small detail plays an important role in the drama. It was definitely a satisfying read, and one of my favorite books of 2015.

Favorite Quotes

“Joe laid his hand upon my shoulder with the touch of a woman. I have often thought him since, like the steam hammer that can crush a man or pat an eggshell, in his combination of strength with gentleness.”

[To Pip about Estella]: “‘Because if it is to spite her,” Biddy pursued, ‘I should think – but you know best – that might be better and more independently done by caring nothing for her words. And if it is to gain her over, I should think – but you know best – she is not worth gaining over.’ “

Nativity by John Donne

Nativity

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

Top Ten Books I Wouldn’t Mind Santa Leaving Under My Tree This Year

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. These books are in no particular order.

1.  Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada

2. Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

3. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

4. The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought by Marilynne Robinson

5. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

6. Drawn from Memory by Ernest H. Shepard

7. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (with this cover)

8. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

9. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

10. We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen

 

 

The Silence by Wendell Berry

The Silence

Though the air is full of singing
my head is loud
with the labor of words.

Though the season is rich
with fruit, my tongue
hungers for the sweet of speech.

Though the beech is golden
I cannot stand beside it
mute, but must say

“It is golden,” while the leaves
stir and fall with a sound
that is not a name.

It is in the silence
that my hope is, and my aim.
A song whose lines

I cannot make or sing
sounds men’s silence
like a root. Let me say

and not mourn: the world
lives in the death of speech
and sings there.