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Monday, February 17, 2020
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In 2019 I read 48 books. Sixty-five percent of the books were fiction, 31% were non-fiction and 4% were poetry. Of the novels, 11 were fantasy, 9 were mysteries, 4 were science fiction, 3 were historical, 3 were young adult and 3 realistic. Of the non-fiction books, 33% dealt with art and 4 were memoirs.
During the last 10 years, I have read 470 books which averages out to 47 books a year. The most books I read in one year was 72 and the least was 28.
Here are the 12 best books I read in 2019.
12. Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert
I have found that young adult and middle school novels seem to do a better job of grappling with the difficult cultural and human issues that we face than adult novels. Gilbert tells the story of illegal immigrant parents from China from the perspective of their high school son who is soon to graduate. He is an artist who is seeking to get admitted to a prestigious art school on the East coast. While the author does not overtly state the young man is gay, it becomes clear that he is. The author does not make homosexuality the main theme of the book. Also, Danny and his friends are still coping with the suicide of a classmate a year ago. Another thread is that Danny has an older sister who he has been told is dead. He feels guilty that he lived and she did not. Gilbert raises a number of issues in the book and does a good job of resolving them. The ending for me was sad.
11. Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese
I took an online course that applied the artistic style of Gustav Klimt to Zentangle. I was inspired to look for books on Klimt and I found this lovely novel. The novel is based on the true stories of Adele Bloch-Bauer and her niece, Maria Altmann. Adele was born and raised in the wealthy class of Vienna, Austria in 1881. She married Ferdinand Bloch in 1899. Ferdinand asked Gustav Klimt to paint his wife's portrait in 1903. Maria Altmann was born in 1916 to the sister of Adele.
The story of these two women is told in alternating chapters. Adele's story is about her relationship to Gustav Klimt and the painting of her portrait. Maria's story begins with the German invasion of Austria in 1938 and explores the treatment of her family under the German rule. She and her husband ultimately escape Austria and eventually come to the United States.
Adele and her husband became art collectors. Klimt painted two portraits of Adele. The Germans stole all of their art and after the war the Austrian government refused to give it back. Maria sued the government of Austria in 2000 and ultimately won the ownership of the portraits in 2006 through arbitration. The original portrait was sold in 2006 for $135 million.
10. A Place Where the Sea Remembers by Sandra Benitez
A great short novel that touches the heart. The book is a series of short stories interconnected by the fact that the stories are set in a small Mexican village. Each story shares the hopes, sorrows and struggles of a different person from the village. Some of the characters are related like the two who are sisters and others are acquaintances. The characters reappear in the background of each other's stories.
9. Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah
This novel, set in southern Illinois, is an excellent first novel by Glendy Vanderah. Jo, a graduate student, is spending the summer in southern Illinois studying the nesting habits of birds. The appearance of a young 11 year old girl out of nowhere puts in motion events that will change Jo's life. The mystery that keeps the reader glued to the book is whom the girl is and where did she come from. The author does a great job of keeping the reader in suspense until the very end. If you are a caring and compassionate person, the novel will touch your heart and maybe even bring tears to your eyes. The novel is a love story on many levels. I highly recommend this book to all lovers of realistic fiction.
8. Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama by Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama is an amazing artist and storyteller. This book is her memoir of her life in art. Growing up in Japan, she wanted to be an artist, but was discouraged by her mother. She left Japan for the United States in her twenties and she became apart of the New York art scene during the 1950s and 1960s. She became known for both her abstract art as well as her performance art. In the 1970's she returned to Japan and eventually entered a psychiatric hospital where she has spent the rest of her days. She has a studio across the street where she creates her art. Since returning to Japan, she has also been writing and publishing novels. She turned 90 in March 22, 2019. In the last 10 years her 10 top selling works of art ranged from 2 million dollars to 7 million. All but two of these were created in the fifties and sixties. She is one of the few artists who has lived long enough to see the value of her art rise in price.
Beth Kempton, who has lived in Japan and speaks the language, shares her understanding of Wabi-Sabi. Wabi-Sabi is about imperfection and impermanence. I highly recommend this beautifully written book. She introduced me to the concept of Forest Bathing.
6. Satellite by Nick Lake
This is an excellent young adult book. Set in space in the near future where space travel is run by the company. The story is about three sixteen year olds who were conceived and born on a space station. They are brought back to live on earth. The novel is about the challenges they face on earth. I highly recommend this book.
5. Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography by William Zinsser, editor
If you love to read biographies, you need to read this book. The book is a collection of six lectures delivered in the winter of 1985 by 6 people who either wrote or were writing a biography. The biographers include David McCullough, Robert B. Sewall, Paul C. Nagel, Ronald Steel, Jean Strouse, and Robert Caro. My favorite talks were by David McCullough on Harry S. Truman and Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson.
Here are a few of my favorite quotes:
"There are two reasons why a man does anything. There's a good reason and there's the real reason." (p. 12)
"I believe very strongly that essence of writing is to know your subject." (David McCullough) p. 27
"It's much more important to listen when you're interviewing people than to worry about what questions you're going to ask." (David McCullough) p. 45
"I've come to appreciate that doing biography is as much an artistic calling as struggling with ideas." (Paul Nagel) p. 101
"The best biographies have always told wonderful stories." (Jean Strouse) p. 164
"Good biographers combine the arts of the novelist, the detective work of the historian and the insights of the psychologist." (Jean Strouse) p. 164
"If you always tell the truth, you don't need memos to remember what you said." (Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the House of Representatives.) p. 214
I highly recommend this book to all who love biographies.
4. The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan
The Bonesetter's Daughter is another excellent novel by Amy Tan. This novel follows a similar pattern to several of Tan's other novels. She tells the story of a Chinese mother and daughter whose relationship is filled with challenges. The mother is born in China and emigrates to the United States. The daughter who is born in the U.S. seeks to discover and understand the secret life of her mother in China. I usually find the mother's Chinese story more fascinating than the daughter's current story. In this case, I also enjoyed the contemporary story because the mother is experiencing dementia and the daughter seeks to place her in an assisted living facility. Having worked in long-term care for 40 years, I found the detail of the first visit to the facility to be very accurate. The heart of the story, though, is about a daughter coming to terms with a difficult mother. I highly recommend this book to those who love novels.
3. Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems and Poems by Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver is an excellent essayist. I normally don't read essays, but I picked this up because Mary is a poet. The language of these essays is very poetic.
In the opening essay, Building the House, she writes about a house she built and a carpenter who writes poetry in his spare time. She is an artist of detail. She describes the blue butterflies called azures: "In their small blue dresses they float among the branches, they come close to me, one rests for a moment on my wrist."
In the second essay, Sister Turtle, Oliver writes about the eggs of a turtle: "Last week I ate the eggs of the turtle, like little golden suns...." Every word in the essays have been measured and chosen for its impact.
In the third essay, The Swan, Oliver discusses the writing of poetry. She writes: "I want the poem to ask something and, at its best moments, I want the question to remain unanswered. I want it to be clear that answering the question is the reader's part in an implicit author-reader pact."
In four short essays, Oliver also discusses 4 poets: Poe, Frost, Hopkins and Whitman. In the essay, Swoon, Oliver explores the life of a spider. In the final essay, Oliver explores the impact of the natural world on her poetry. She writes: "I am forever just going out for a walk and tripping over the root, or the petal, of some trivia, then seeing it as if in a second sight, as emblematic."
I highly recommend this short book to anyone who loves language. Enjoy the gifts that Mary Oliver shares with you.
2. Madam Secretary: A Memoir by Madeleine K. Albright
This is the third memoir I have read by a female Secretary of State about her experience as the Secretary. First, I read Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton. Second, I read No Higher Honor by Condoleezza Rice. Now, I have finished Madeleine Albright's memoir. Each memoir touches on the hot spots around the world and how they dealt with their counterparts in the different countries.
Madeleine was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1937. Josef Korbel, Madeleine's father, was involved in politics and served as an ambassador to Yugoslavia and Albania. The family escaped to England when the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia. They returned after the war only to escape to America after the Communists took over Czechoslovakia. They were given political asylum. The family moved to Denver, Colorado where Josef became a professor.
Madeleine attended Wellesley College and was granted American citizenship in 1957. She married Joseph Albright in 1959. She gave birth to twin daughters in 1961 and a third daughter in 1967. Madeleine was a granted a Ph.D from Columbia University in 1976.
In 1976, Madeleine became chief legislative assistant to Senator Edmund Muskie. She worked on the staff of the National Security Council from 1978 to 1981. She served as foreign policy advisor to presidential nominee Walter Mondale and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. She also served on the faculty at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. She became the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. on February 1, 1993. On January 23, 1997, Madeleine was sworn in as the 64th Secretary of State. She was the first female to hold the position.
When Madeleine became Secretary of State, she discovered that she was of Jewish descent and that several of her relatives had died in the concentration camps. Her parents had raised her Catholic.
Madam Secretary is a fascinating book and I highly recommend it to those who are interested in international politics.
1. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
I first read this book in 1971, two years after it was published. The following year the movie came out. I have always wondered how closely the book followed the movie so I have now read the book for the second time. And movie follows the book very closely. Only a few scenes are left out.
Having seen the movie multiple times, I pictured the actors in their roles as I read the book. Emotionally, I was still touched by the brutal killing of Sonny.
As someone who is anti-violence, anti-guns , and anti-crime, I am still surprised by my positive response to the book. Anthony Puzo, son of Mario, says, in his opening note to the 5oth anniversary edition, "My father's unique and ultimately brilliant idea to base The Godfather on family values was the key to its success." That may be why I like the book. As a reader, you cannot help but fall in love with the characters. It is about loyalty, about caring for those you love. I believe that even the worst of people have some good in them and that the best of people have some evil in them. None of us are perfect.
Anthony also mentioned some curious facts about the writing of the book. The Don was based on Mario's mother. Hw said: "Whenever the Don opened his mouth, my father said that in his own mind he heard the voice of his mother. He heard her wisdom, ruthlessness and unconquerable love for her family."
I have often wondered how Mario knew so much about the Mafia. The truth is that Mario never met anyone in the Mafia. All his knowledge was gained from research. This flies in the face of the advice writers are given to write about what you know.
I highly recommend this novel both to those who have never read it and to those who have. Read it again. Now, I think it is time for me to see the movie again.
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Henry Ford built his first car inside a rented building. When the car was finished, he realized that the door was not big enough for the car to go through so he destroyed an entire wall. He did not let the wall stand in the way of test driving his first car. Do you learn from your mistakes? In every failure is an opportunity to grow and change. When something knocks you off your feet, pick yourself up and begin again.