It’s that time of year again where “Top Ten of 2012” lists start springing out of the woodwork! Well, put your mind at ease; this isn’t a top ten, it’s a top twelve. Plus a little.
These are some of my favorite columns to write every year because I get to relive my most thrilling reading moments of the recent past and pass them on to all of you. Here’s wishing you happy reading into 2013 and beyond!
(For longer versions of each of these reviews, please see my Goodreads page)
By Jonathan Haidt
For all of our vaunted reasoning powers as human beings, we are more accurately described as creatures of intuition. Dr. Haidt outlines dozens of studies that have shown that our initial “gut” reaction comes first and then our reason works to find justifications for our reaction. Helpful analogies abound in Dr. Haidt’s writing. I like this one: “Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.” Confirmation bias – “the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think” – figures heavily into this theme. “People are quite good at challenging statements made by other people, but if it’s your belief, then it’s your possession–your child, almost– and you want to protect it, not challenge it and risk losing it.”
Bridging to politics, he states that “part of what it means to be a partisan is that you have acquired the right set of intuitive reactions to hundreds of words and phrases” such as “taxes,” “welfare,” or “pro-life.” In fact, due to the hits of dopamine the brain gets when one feels justified or apparent contradictions are resolved, Dr. Haidt states that “extreme partisanship may be literally addictive.”
He ends the book with two valid points he feels liberals have that conservatives should pay more attention to, and two valid counterpoints conservatives have that liberals would do well to heed. In other words, both sides have important contributions to make and neither is all right or all wrong. We need to listen better, recognize when our intuitive reactions are in charge, and determine to seek common ground.
By R.J. Palacio
This spring, when my oldest was in fourth grade, his teacher started reading Wonder out loud to the class, just a few pages every day. School ended before the book did, so I checked it out of the library for Will to finish. I didn’t intend to pick it up, but because it was printed material and in close proximity to me, I couldn’t resist its pull. It ended up being one of the most touching books I read all year.
Wonder is about August, a boy with a “craniofacial abnormality” that frightens and repulses others. After being homeschooled for the first several years of his education, he starts fifth grade at Beecher Prep School. Ms. Palacio skillfully and empathetically captures the difficulties of middle school for “regular” kids as well as the extra challenges for a person as different on the outside as August is (though he asserts “I think the only person in the world who realizes how ordinary I am is me.”).
Ms. Palacio also provides gold nuggets of wisdom mixed in with the story. When August doesn’t want to go back to school because of a friend’s betrayal, his big sister says, “You have to go back to school. Everyone hates school sometimes. I hate school sometimes. I hate my friends sometimes. That’s just life, Auggie. You want to be treated normally, right? This is Normal! We all have to go to school sometimes despite the fact that we have bad days, okay?”
And from the school principal’s graduation talk: “It’s not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed…If you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.”
I wish I had confidence that the same happy ending August had would be the result for other kids at other schools. Unfortunately, experience has shown that’s not always the case. We can all of us, though, try to be a little kinder and bring reality a little closer to this beautifully told story.
By John G. Turner
Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet provides a fascinating narrative of the life of the second man to serve as the head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the overseer of one of the largest human migrations in North American history. Mr. Turner does an excellent job contextualizing Brigham Young’s life and offering plausible explanations for some of his seemingly questionable decisions. He also shows how Brigham’s leadership style developed in response to Joseph Smith’s difficulties and death, as well as how it shifted in later years due to societal and political changes.
There is quite a bit of discussion of polygamy, naturally, since the concept is inextricable from Brigham’s persona. Anyone who knows anything about Brigham Young knows that he was a polygamist, and oh boy was he! Unashamedly and at least 55 times over.
I regularly cringed at Brigham’s statements regarding women and blacks; many of them are absolutely offensive to our modern sensibilities. However, Mr. Turner takes pains to point out that these viewpoints were not at all unusual for the time, though the vehemence of Brigham’s rhetorical style lends an air of extremism to his words.
Brigham was quite colorful in his language and often described himself as “not a refined man”. “Many visitors commented on the public use of profane language by Young…’I acknowledged in Nauvoo I was not so good a man as Joseph,’ he observed of his language…It was better to be passionate than proper.” One of my favorite expressions comes from his description of the new territorial governor: “If you were to fill a sock with cow dung, it would be the best thing you could do for an imitation.”
Mr. Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet has given me a better understanding of the man and an appreciation for the enormity of the tasks before him. “For Young,” Mr. Turner explains, “everything else was secondary to the preservation of the church.”
By Julie Cummins
In this children’s book, Ms. Cummins briefly profiles ten amazing women you’ve probably never heard about – I know I hadn’t. Ms. Cummins addresses this lack of visibility straightforwardly in the introduction as “a sign of their times…The following ten women were born before 1900, at a time when proper ladies simply did not go gallivanting around the world to explore new territories or undiscovered places.” However, because these women were brave enough to defy cultural norms and gender stereotypes, they were able to make “contributions to science, geography, history, and cultural understanding.” A couple brief glimpses here to whet your appetite:
Nellie Cashman immigrated to the United States with her family during the Irish potato famine. On the advice of General Ulysses S. Grant, whom she met while working as a bellhop in Boston, she moved out West, participating in the gold rush in British Columbia, the silver rush in Arizona – where she opened a restaurant that is still operating today – and the gold rush in the Klondike and Alaska. She nursed 100 miners sick with scurvy back to health and distributed much of her wealth to the poor.
Ynes Mexia was a field botanist who didn’t find her calling in life until she was 55. She worked for the Mexican government gathering plants for herbariums, including 50 new species. She lived with the Aguarunas, a headhunting tribe in the Amazon, for three months, and collected 65,000 plants in two and a half years.
Ms. Cummins created solid profiles with a great mix of detailed stories and broad overview of these women’s lives. I have ten new heroes I can’t wait to learn more about!
By Daniel O’Malley
The Rook is a fun, imaginative, supernatural spy thriller and an impressive debut novel from Mr. O’Malley. Starting with a compelling premise – Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) Thomas wakes up with two black eyes, no memory of her former life, covered with bruises and surrounded by dead bodies – Mr. O’Malley takes us on a roller coaster ride through the Checquy, a secret government agency peopled with vampires, four bodies sharing a single mind, bullet-proof agents and gifted administrators with superpowers.
Myfanwy has the good fortune to have an excellent guide through this mysterious life of hers: herself. Actually, her former self before the memory wipe, who it turns out had a separate and distinct personality from the new Myfanwy. The former Myfanwy had some notice that “something bad” would happen involving her memory – an oracular duck, a three-thousand-year-old Greek woman, a homeless beggar, and a very sick little boy all warned her so she provided a suitcase full of letters for the Myfanwy-to-be along with a thick purple binder full of vital exposition and explanations for both the new Myfanwy and the reader. It sounds like little more than a convenient plot device, but it is a surprisingly effective tactic to help the reader sympathize with Myfanwy as well as watch her character develop – both of them.
The new Myfanwy grows into her role as she tries to maintain her predecessor’s position in this labyrinthine supernatural world, uncover who assaulted the former her, and reveal the traitors who have infiltrated the Checquy. Not knowing who she can trust, she pieces together the clues while battling a hybrid supernatural-scientific invasion from Belgium and putting out other paranormal fires all over the UK.
I needed an entertaining and absorbing novel that didn’t take itself too seriously, one I could just read and enjoy. The Rook fit the bill perfectly. (Warning: There is some strong language.)
By Terryl and Fiona Givens
Yes, I know I just reviewed this book here , but I really mean it when I say “if you only pick up one book on Mormon theology, make it” this one. I received my review copy in late October and I’ve already read it twice and lent it out to half a dozen people.
As soon as my mom gets done reading it, I’ll start in on my third time through. Get your hands on a copy, people!
Read in 2012: Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, Emma, Mansfield Park
Author: Jane Austen
This is a first for my end-of-the-year list: I’m picking two authors to highlight, one today and one in the next column, in addition to the dozen individual books.
Back in January, one of my book clubs (yes, that’s plural – I attend two and am on the email list for a third) decided to have a Jane Austen month. Instead of picking a single book for everyone to read, each of us chose whichever one of Jane Austen’s six novels she wanted to read. I selected Persuasion, which has long been my favorite, but being the overachiever I am, I decided I should re-read the three I was least familiar with just so I could be ready for the discussion if someone else read them. So after finishing Persuasion I read through Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma, as well. (Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice have long been frequently-read favorites of mine.) This exercise reaffirmed my conviction that Ms. Austen excels at creating sympathetic characters and realistic relationships. Her social commentary is pointed, but she maintains a recognition of individual human foibles and weaknesses. If you haven’t read Ms. Austen’s works (and no, watching the movie doesn’t count!), sit down with one this coming year.
On My Bedside Table…
Just finished: The Age of Miracles by Karen Walker Thompson
Now reading: Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection by A.J. Jacobs
On deck: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
Come back in two weeks for the rest of my top twelve list for 2012! You can find me on goodreads.com or email suggestions, comments, and feedback to egeddesbooks (at) gmail (dot) com.