Thursday, January 01, 2015

2014 in Review: Books

I’m going to start this year’s Year-in-Review series with a post about books. It makes good sense. I read far, far more books in 2014 than I reckon I have in any year previous. Excluding picture books (of which I read several), I read a grand total of 58 books throughout the year. Goodreads tells me I read a total of 13,948 pages. I assume that’s in the ballpark, but the page count isn’t precise because sometimes Goodreads synchs up your reading list with different editions of the books you read, or it includes the indexes of books, etc. But, if you throw picture books into the lot, I suppose it balances things out a little bit. Regardless, let’s take a look at what I spent all that time reading in 2014.

30 of the 58 books I read were non-fiction. Of the 30 non-fiction books I read, only 6 were not specifically on Mormonism, including 3 that were entirely non-religious and 1 scholarly religious book that was written by an LDS author but had nothing directly to do with the Mormon faith. That leaves 24 books on my list that are about Mormonism. That’s a ton, but percentage-wise, it’s less “Mormon-heavy” than last year. Mormonism occupied only 41% of my total reading, and a mere 80% of my non-fiction reading. I’m really branching out!

One reason I read so many more fiction books in 2014 is that I started reading more books to my kids. And, with them being slightly older now, we’re able to focus much of that reading on chapter books. Among our favorites has been the Janitors series by Tyler Whitesides (Melanie’s cousin). The third and fourth books in the series—Curse of the Broomstaff and Strike of the Sweepers, respectively—were read by me in 2014. It really is a great series, although the most recent book was far less impressive to me than the previous three. But dominating our reading in 2014 is the work of James Howe. Howe is most notable for the Bunnicula series. I loved those books as a kid, and so I was eager to introduce them to my own children. They really loved them, so much in fact that we also ended up reading the spin-off series Tales from the House of Bunnicula. I must say, I loved the latter series even more. Each of the six books in the series is written by Howie, a wirehaired dachshund puppy who is rather full of himself but too youthful and dimwitted to be anything other than lovably charming. I think children could learn a lot about the writing process by reading these books, as Howie frequently interrupts his own narratives with entries from his “writing journal,” wherein he writes about his struggles as an author. It is really a fantastic and hilarious set of books, even if they are very light reading. All said and done, the work of James Howe accounts for 13 of the 58 books I read in 2014, by far the most prevalent author on my list.

The next most commonly read author on my 2014 list is Daymon Smith, with four titles. Smith has written a multi-volume series that is A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon. I’ve now read six of the books in the series, but that’s just over half of them. A linguistic anthropologist, Smith attempts to trace the use (and abuse) of the Book of Mormon within the LDS Church since the church was established in 1830. (Actually, he starts before the church was officially established.) Smith’s books can be very difficult to read but are hugely rewarding for those who put forth the effort to understand them. One of the most important things to come out of my reading of Smith is that I now realize how much we read into scriptural texts. That is, we have certain narratives and ideas already in our heads as we approach a text, and so we frequently obscure the text with preconceived notions, reading it to confirm what we believe it is already saying (but, often times, really isn’t or isn’t necessarily). That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but needless to say, reading Smith has shifted some paradigms and is likely to have a permanent influence on my approach to Mormonism.

A similar compliment can be paid to Paul Toscano, who ties for third-place (along with Denver Snuffer and Stephen King) as my most-read author of 2014. In total, I read three books composed by Toscano. Two of those books were collections of essays, 1994’s The Sanctity of Dissent and a superior work from 2007, The Sacrament of Doubt. I enjoyed both of these volumes, but far-and-away the best book by Toscano is the one he co-authored with his wife, Margaret, entitled Strangers in Paradox: Explorations in Mormon Theology. Strangers in Paradox is the absolute best book I read during all of 2014, non-fiction or otherwise. Like the work of Daymon Smith, Strangers in Paradox is paradigm-shifting. I don’t agree with everything in it, but almost every page has a ton of interesting ideas to mull over. If you ever questioned the richness of Mormon theology, this book will change your mind. Although I obtained the book from the library, those who are interested can read the book in its entirety for free at the following website:

To round out my recommendations for amazing reads about Mormonism, I will plug three more books. In order of preference, I highly commend “This is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology by Charles R. Harrell, The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith by Terryl and Fiona Givens, and Letters to a Young Mormon by Adam S. Miller. Together with Strangers in Paradox, these books comprise all of the five-star non-fiction books I read in 2014. Harrell’s book is something like an encyclopedia, with each chapter tackling a different subject in Mormonism: The Holy Ghost, The Preexistence, Salvation for the Dead, etc. Harrell, a professor at BYU, chronicles how each subject was perceived and understood at various times in history, starting with Old Testament times and moving up through different stages of Mormonism, be it Kirtland-Era Mormonism, Nauvoo-Era Mormonism, or Mormonism today. What most readers will find surprising is that very little of Mormon doctrine has remained static over the years, and our conception of things as central as the nature of God has remained in flux even since the LDS Church was established.

The Crucible of Doubt is a book I wish most Mormons would read. It espouses the kind of Mormonism that I love and embrace, and I think if more Mormons would seriously hold to the views put forth in the book, LDS culture would be remarkably different (for the better). Letters to a Young Mormon is a very tiny book, a book of advice on various subjects written by the author to the hypothetical LDS youth. Don’t let the name of the book fool you—any thoughtful Latter-day Saint will benefit from reading its pages. Miller, a philosophy professor, provides a refreshing look at what it means to live Mormonism in the context of today’s rational world. Both The Crucible of Doubt and Letters to a Young Mormon are published by subsidiaries of the LDS Church and can be found at such non-controversial bookstores as Deseret Book. Just in case you think I only read stuff written by excommunicates and other radicals.

Only one fiction book claimed five stars from me in 2014, and that is The Witch’s Get by Diana Janopaul. I assure you, my being smitten with The Witch’s Get has nothing to do with the fact that the author is a good friend of mine and attended church with me in Tallahassee. As wonderful as the woman is who wrote The Witch’s Get, the book stands on its own merits. It is, quite simply, a beautiful and poetic read. It feels like a classic, the kind of novel that is driven by story and manages to involve all five senses throughout. The story is set in Scotland during the time of witch trials, a time when a healer and midwife, like the main character Mancy, would be at risk of being burned alive for her mystical ways. The Witch’s Get is a brief and satisfying read that I heartily recommend to everyone. Just to whet your appetite, let me share a favorite quote from the book:
For me, there really were no such things as weeds. They were all special in their own way. I have been told by the American herbalists here that sweet dandelion is considered a weed where they come from and that people go to great lengths to eradicate them. Imagine! My dancing, humming dandelions. Well, it just goes to show that you can turn almost anything into something bad, something evil. Dandelions are weeds and healers are witches. Imagine. (page 54)
As noted above, Stephen King was amongst my most-read authors of 2014. I read several King books as a teenager, but went nearly 20 years before I picked him up again in 2013. Yes, in 2013 I read a single book by King, a newly-arrived sequel to King’s 1970s classic The Shining. That’s what piqued my curiosity, and although the book was nothing special—by no means do I think King is an excellent writer—I found a certain satisfaction in reading something that, from a literary standpoint, is a bit more fluffy and entertaining. There was also something nostalgic about reading an author that I associated almost exclusively with my teenage years, and that made it fun. And I guess I got hooked on that feeling, because I’ve now read a few more Stephen King books. It started with Mr. Mercedes, a 2014 thriller about a retired cop who is hunting down the person who purposely drove a Mercedes-Benz into a crowd, killing multiple people. Around Halloween, I read what is highly regarded as one of King’s scariest novels, 1983’s Pet Sematary, about an Indian burial ground that can bring the dead back to life. King then released a second new book in 2014, Revival, about the continually intertwining lives of musician Jamie Morton and Charles Jacobs, a minister obsessed with the magical power of electricity. I have to say, Mr. Mercedes was my favorite, with a genuinely taut and suspenseful final few chapters. While I enjoyed the other two novels, I felt they both had fairly little going on much of the time. Pet Sematary didn’t even seem much like a horror book until the last few pages. Even so, I enjoyed my time reading these books and will probably end up reading more Stephen King in the future. Maybe he’ll be my go-to author when I’m wanting to read something that doesn’t require much thought.

I made a conscious effort to branch out in 2014 by reading a few classics. During the Christmas season, I read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I’ve always had it in mind that I love Dickens, although this is based purely on my very much enjoying Great Expectations when I read it as a high school freshman. A Christmas Carol is the first Dickens book I’ve read since then, and I wasn’t disappointed. I think because the story is so familiar to us, we fail to see how wonderful a tale it is. My only complaint is that the ending seems very brief and abrupt compared to the rest of the book. Another classic I read is Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel Ethan Frome. This is one of my mother’s very favorite books, and so I chose it partially based on that (and also because it was fairly short compared to other books I was considering at the time). I thought it was very good, though I found it a little slow at first and sometimes didn’t find the writing all that clear (which may be me, or based on the book’s age, or what have you). I also found it a bit monotonous and melodramatic near the end, but I won’t say much more so as not to ruin the ending (if that actually matters to anyone reading my blog, which I highly doubt). I gave the book only three stars on Goodreads, but that’s primarily because it’s not the sort of book that resonates with me personally. Less enjoyable to me was The Awakening, Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel that is often regarded as a proto-feminist work. I suppose it may have been impressive and somewhat revolutionary for its time, but my modern mind found it difficult to pay attention to as I read. It’s one of those books I felt like I was sometimes reading without really listening to it, if you know what I mean. I also found the ending a bit baffling, but again, I shan’t say more than that so as not to ruin something. And finally, while not exactly a classic, I did branch out by reading Anaïs Nin’s Little Birds. For those who don’t know, Little Birds is a collection of erotic short stories. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them. As I noted in my Goodreads review, the writing was graceful and often poetic, but the stories themselves were all over the place. A story might begin with two strangers meeting at night on the beach and making love, and then conclude with the woman recounting a time when she enjoyed being sexually assaulted while watching a public execution. Yeah … weird.

And I think that is a satisfactory year-in-review when it comes to books. Stay tuned for review posts about movies, television, and other fun from 2014.

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