Books I read in January

I did a lot of reading this month. It helped that I had some extra weekdays with no work, between holidays and winter weather when the school was closed. Plus it’s the time of year to stay indoors, and what better way to pass that time than curled up with a good book? Not all books turn out to be really good, but you only find out by reading them. (I guess there are some books that are just plain bad that you can find out by reading reviews, but the books that others consider good always turn out to have some people who love them and others who just can’t get into them.)

I’m well into the PopSugar 2019 Reading Challenge, and so far most of the books I’ve read have been OK but not great. I haven’t really disliked any of them, at least not once I got far enough into the book to get what was going on.

First was Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, which I picked for a book with a two-word title, and because the college library had it in a display of Best Books of 2018. It was one I really didn’t care for at the beginning, but over the course of the book I got to like the narrator somewhat better. It’s certainly not one of my favorites, but I got a see how life looks from a very different perspective from my own experience, which was the point in reading it.

Next was At Home in the World: Stories and Essential Teachings from a Monk’s Life by Thich Nhat Hanh, which I picked for a book written by an author from Asia, Africa, or South America, but mostly I read it because I’m leading a Bible study looking at world religions from a Christian viewpoint, and I thought the study guide we’re using did a poor job of portraying Buddhism. Along with this book, not for the Reading Challenge but for the Bible study, I read Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction by Damien Keown. Between these two, I (and the ladies in the Bible study) got a better idea of Buddhist ideas and life.

I have read and enjoyed several books by Henning Mankell, so when it came to reading a book set in Scandinavia, I just looked for the next book in the Kurt Wallander series that I hadn’t read yet and I could find at the local library, which was The white lioness. It was different from others in the series in that part (a crucial part, in fact) of the story was set in South Africa, before the end of apartheid. That bifurcation felt odd, when I’m used to the whole story being centered on Wallander, but I enjoy learning history and other cultures, so I appreciated that aspect. When I was done, I spent a while looking up more information about South African history, trying to understand how people could possibly have felt justified in trying to sustain the apartheid system.

It was difficult to come up with any ideas for a book recommended by a celebrity you admire, since I ignore celebrities as much as possible and couldn’t think of any I admired. I still plan to read one recommended by Malala Yousafzai, but when I found out that Fred Rogers (i.e. Mister Rogers) had recommended writings of Henri Nouwen, I pulled one off the shelf that I had bought used a few years ago and hadn’t gotten around to reading, The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. It’s a good introduction to the thinking/practices of the Desert Fathers, as well as good advice for Christian living, and I try to apply some of the principles in it. I would have liked it to actually get somewhat deeper into some of the topics, though I’m sure I can find other books that cover these areas in more depth.

The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton was suggested in a Goodreads group discussion for a book revolving around a puzzle or game, as well as being a group selection for January for that prompt, and after reading several reviews it was my choice also. I found this book particularly hard to get into, as I just couldn’t find a reason to care about either the main character or the story, and it took until most of the way through the book before enough was explained that it made sense and I cared how it ended. I think I understand why it was written that way, so that the reader is as much in the dark as the character himself, but if I weren’t in the practice of nearly always finishing books I start, I think I would have given up fairly early.

I have been reading Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St Mary’s, which is my current “just for fun” series. The library, unfortunately, only has the very first book, but I’ve been finding the others at reasonable prices from online used bookstores, and I got two for Christmas (A Second Chance and A Trail through Time, both of which I read in early January) and two for my birthday. I had no idea when I read No Time Like the Past that it would fit any of the Reading Challenge prompts, but when it turned out to include a wedding, I happily checked that one off the list.

Spirit of Steamboat by Craig Johnson didn’t quite fit for reading a book during the season it is set in, since it takes place at Christmas, and I wasn’t reading it until early January, so I’ll find another book to fit the prompt. But it was part of what made me choose the book, along with having previously read and enjoyed two other books in the Walt Longmire series. Since one of the books I had read was later in the series (the first one I read, before I decided to go back and read the earlier ones), I knew that Longmire would survive all the dangers in the book, but it was well-written and suspenseful enough to keep me listening as I pedaled the exercise bike.

I had previously tried to listen to The Warsaw Anagrams by Richard Zimler, but it was back when I first started listening to books on the iPod, and I didn’t realize it had gotten into shuffle mode until I was hopelessly mixed up about where I was in the book and which chapters I had listened to and which I hadn’t. (For a while I thought it was one of those books that was told all out of order, and only much later realized why I had so much trouble keeping my place in the audiobook.) I had finally given up on it, but I kept it on my iPod in case I ever wanted to try again. By this year, I had forgotten enough of it not to be bored listening to parts I did remember, finally understanding the storyline that had so confused me before. It’s still a slow-moving story, better suited to my long commute than to the exercise bike. I could probably use it for the Reading Challenge for a book featuring an amateur detective, but that aspect of the book is not as central as I had at first thought, and there are plenty of those books out there and I like mysteries.

I sometimes enjoy children’s or YA fiction, so I decided to try Operation Trinity (The 39 Clues: The Cahill Files #1) by Clifford Riley. My younger son had read the first book in The 39 Clues series, back when he was much younger, and I had mistakenly thought this was that book when I downloaded it. It turns out to give some history of the Cahill family, so I suppose it’s not a bad thing to have read it first, though I’m not sure I’ll read more or not. Since the first one is by Rick Riordan, whose books I have very much enjoyed, I’ll probably give it a try.

The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card was our library book club’s choice for the month. I have enjoyed most of what I have read by Card, and I had already read the third book in this trilogy (not realizing until afterward that it was not a standalone novel), so I was happy with the choice, especially after not having cared for the previous month’s selection. Apparently some of the others in the club don’t care for sci-fi and just couldn’t get into it, and others simply found it hard to get through, so there was not a lot of discussion on the story itself, aside from what people didn’t like about it. Frankly I think sci-fi is not conducive to book club discussions anyway, as it tends to be more plot-centric, or to focus on technology or world-building, while books where with more focus on themes and character development are more likely to generate good discussions. (I suppose for a group of sci-fi enthusiasts it could be different, but that clearly does not describe our book club membership.)

The last book I read for the month was Driving Force: The Natural Magic of Magnets by James D. Livingston. My younger son, who is in Toastmasters with me, had recently given a speech where he briefly discussed magnetism (the topic was superheroes and physics), and that got me interested in learning more about diamagnetism, which was key to a science fair kit we had purchased for him back in middle school. I had not realized, until I read this book, just how little I knew about magnetism, or just how much there was to know. I’m planning to do my own next Toastmasters speech (a project which requires doing research on a subject of interest and then giving a speech on it) on a topic related to magnetism, so this book got me started. It barely mentioned diamagnetism, but it gave some very interesting insights into what makes certain materials magnetic, and amazed me with the number and variety of uses of magnets in our everyday lives. The book is rather dated in its examples (e.g. VCR and floppy disk), but I was particularly intrigued with the section on maglev trains, which I remember hearing about in elementary school, so I have been reading various articles on why we don’t have more of them today, almost 50 years later.

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