Favourite Books of 2017

I turned a great number of pages in 2017, from the comfort of bed, my living room chair, aka perch, the beach, or while waiting in offices and coffee shops. Here are some of my favourite borrowed, bought or gifted books. By the way, these are all book-books - you know, the actual thing that is printed on paper.

Fiction

A before-bed tradition that began with my mother reading a bedtime story to me, there's rarely a night where a book isn't the prelude to sleep. Do Treasure Your Pleasure Reading.

1. The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

Set in Wales during World War II, this book demonstrates that there is often no clear demarcation between love and hate, good and evil, right and wrong.

Life in a small Welsh village is suddenly changed with the construction of a POW camp. The local pub that the villagers frequent is now patronized by members of the British military. Their arrival stirs up the Nationalist Welsh and a lot of hard feelings.

This book is primarily a love story between Esther Evans, the daughter of a sheep farmer, and a POW name Karsten Simmering.

You also meet Rotheram, a German Jew, who works for the British Political Intelligence Division as a document translator. He was assigned the heavy task of interrogating Rudolph Hess, who was imprisoned in a manor house in Wales. He is not without his own personal struggles, as this interchange on page 19 demonstrates:

'Let me get this straight,' the CO said. 'You believe you can judge Hess fairly, but you're concerned that others won't see that judgment as impartial because they think you're Jewish.'

It is also about shifting loyalties within the POW camp, between father and daughter, among the English and the Welsh and even between those on the same side.

There's one more theme:

Thoughts of the flock make her think again of cynefin. That knowledge, the sense of place, passed from mothers to daughters, without which their very lives on the farm would be impossible. It's what keeps the sheep on the land, and the sheep, she thinks, are what keep the people here, so perhaps they all have it. (Page 309)

Wikipedia describes cynefin as a "sense of rootedness - temporal, physical, cultural or spiritual." That connection to something other than ourselves and our devices may be what so many people miss today. Too many distractions and "subtractions" uproot us and leave us disconnected and blown this way and that. Since home is where the heart is, doesn't that seem like a good place to start to find your cynefin?

2. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

When she was in France, my friend counted the steps between manhole covers in St. Malo to see if it was as described in All the Light We Cannot See. Upon hearing that, I was intrigued enough to pick up the book. When I did, I had a hard time putting down. In fact, this is one of my all-time favourite books, right up there with Cutting for Stone, Bel Canto and The Poisonwood Bible.

Anthony Doerr treats a difficult period (WWII) with exquisite writing that bring the characters to life. I found myself holding my breath in a number of scenes, hoping for a positive outcome, which didn't always happen. Yet, I continued to turn the pages of this intricately woven story. I wanted to know what happened to Marie Laure who made her way, despite being blind. What about the fully-sighted Werner, who was led astray? His sister Jutta said:

It was hard for him not to do what was expected of him.

The radio and a miniature model are as just as important to the story as the characters who draw breath: Papa, Uncle Etienne, Madame Manec and Jutta, to name a few.

3. The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Light-hearted and fun, this book introduces a cast of shopkeepers and residents who inhabit a decaying street in London. It is a mystery, a salute to friendship and a tribute to music.

Where else can you find two listening booths that are made out of converted armoires? Squeeze in, shut the door and listen to that particular sound that only vinyl records make. There's more. Frank has a gift. He is able to provide his customers with the just-right music to soothe what ails them. For example, he sent "the man who only likes Chopin" into the listening booth for some Aretha. It was a wise choice; one that helped him overcome his feelings following the dissolution of his marriage. (Here's one of my favourites: I Say a Little Prayer. Thanks for the music, Aretha!)

I particularly enjoyed the Cole's Notes, or in this case Frank's Notes on the composers and the pairings of music, not by genre, but by the feeling that the music evokes. On page 24, you'll find one such pairing:

Because he loved them and knew everything about them, he arranged them carefully in boxes; not by genre, or letters of the alphabet, but more instinctively. He put Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, for instance, beside Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys and Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. ('Same thing, different time,'he said.) For Frank, music was like a garden − it sowed seeds in far-flung places. People would miss out on so many wonderful things if they only stuck with what they knew.

Frank's mother taught him that "music is about silence." She encouraged him to listen to the silence, as much as the sounds. A life lesson that has value, especially in this overly noisy world.

This applies to conversations, too. The spaces in between the words gives both parties the room to breathe and to participate. The "ping-pong" of a conversation creates a sense of equilibrium that feels just right, wouldn't you agree?

4. The Watch that Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan

This was a hard book to get into, but once I did, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Writers are always urged to write what they know and this book, which was published in 1959, mirrors much of MacLennan's own life.

George Stewart, a CBC reporter and McGill University professor, takes us back to the 1930s and the politics of the time. It's a first-person narrative about his later-in-life marriage to Catherine, a woman he's loved his whole life, and the challenges they face. This novel is as much about love and society, as it is about making choices in a turbulent time, when associations with the wrong group can end badly. It's also an ode to Canada during the 30s and the 50s.

Growing up in northwestern Ontario, I could easily relate to the description of a cold Montreal winter on page 3:

One evening at the beginning of a cold February, the first winter of the Korean War, I left my classroom in the university and made my way along the corridor to the stair. It was five o'clock and the best time of my days that winter was about to begin. I love Montreal on a fine winter night and I was looking forward to the walk home along Sherbrooke Street with the evening star in the gap at the corner of Guy, then to a drink before my fire, to dinner and after dinner to a quiet evening with my wife, a little more work and a good night's sleep.

Contrast it with this description on page 131:

St. Catherine Street on a Friday night in the depression: the news vendors closing their stalls, the unemployed slouching along, the shop windows lit like altars, the trams jangling their bells, the boys and girls going into the movies. I stopped at a tavern and drank a beer. I crawled to another and had two beers in the company of a hairy truck driver who informed there was no work in Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Port Arthur, North Bay, Ottawa or Montreal.

On the Walrus:

Mostly, though, The Watch is an elegy for Canada, for the Canada that might have been. Through his memories, George takes his readers back to the 1930s, back to a generation searching for something, anything, to replace the shattered faiths of their fathers. Marxism. Communism. Socialism. Fascism. Social Credit. The CCF, the LSR, the CPC, dreams mouldering under forgotten acronyms. 'Was there ever a time,' asks George, 'when so many people tried, so pathetically, to feel responsible for all mankind? Was there ever a generation which yearned to belong, so unsuccessfully, to something larger than themselves?'”

Jerome, a brilliant doctor, and Catherine's first husband, is very much in the picture, even when he's not there. His politics and his desire to do what he believes is necessary, is to the detriment of his marriage and his career.

Here he is talking to George:

'But she doesn't understand the meaning of pain and I can't make her see my side of it at all. If I didn't adore Kate - if I didn't worship her - 'He turned away and then back again. 'These people' - a sweep of his hand toward Montreal - 'these people think I'm a Red because I want to help the Spanish Loyalists. My God, how stupid can they be! I'm not a revolutionary. I see a thing that has to be done - like tonight - and I do it. It gets damned lonely bucking the current all the time.' His eyes stared into mine. 'Have you the slightest idea how lucky you are not being born with my temperament?' (Page 237)

The Watch that Ends the Night is a great work of literature that captures the Canadian "climate" during the 30s and 50s.

5. A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

I'm usually partial to British mysteries, but the Inspector Gamache series, which is set in Quebec, has won me over. This is the 13th book in the series. The stories, the research and the writing itself improves with each successive book.

If I walked into the bistro run by Gabri and Olivier in Three Pines, I could easily identify Inspector Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie sitting comfortably in front of the fire. Look, here comes his trusted colleagues, Jean-Guy Beauvoir and Isabelle Lacoste. A peak into Myrna's adjoining bookstore and I'll see Ruth and her trusty duck, Rosa, slipping out the door with yet another unpaid book tucked under her arm. Clara is easy to identify. (You'll have to read the book to find out why.)

What I like about this series is that Penny often presents something worth thinking about, such as what is evident in this conversation on page 241:

'A place's history is decided by its geography. Is the terrain mountainous. If so, it's harder to invade. The people are more independent, but also isolated. Is it surrounded by water? If so, it's probably more cosmopolitan−'

'But easier to conquer, like Venice,' said Amelia, picking up on what he meant.

'Oui,' said Monsieur Bergeron, turning an approving eye on the Goth girl. 'Venice gave up trying to defend herself and decided to open her doors to all comers. As a result, it became a hub of commerce, of knowldege and of art and music. Because of its position, geographically, it became a gateway. Geography decides if you're invaded or the invader.'

'Look at the Romans,' said Amelia. 'And later the Britons.'

'Oui, c'est ça,' said Monsieur Bergeron, looking slightly manic now. 'Britain was invaded over and over, until it realized its weakness was also it's strength. Brittania turned her efforts to ruling the waves and so, in turn, ruled the world. That wouldn't have happened had it not been an island nation.'

'Geography is history,' said Amelia, taken with the idea. She loved history, but had given absolutely no thought to geography.'

6. Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan & Rodrigo Corral

Aren't you just about a wee bit curious about the "waybacklist" - a section in Mr, Penumbra's bookstore that is unlike any that you have encountered. The story revolves around a bookstore with a host of peculiar characters, all members of the Unbroken Spine, who come calling at all hours of the day and night. It is a 24-hour bookstore, after all! What they're doing and why they're doing it is part of the mystery that Clay Jannon unravels, with the help of his friends.

This is a fun book to read. I hope you'll be as delighted as I was to discover the surprise! (I don't want to ruin it for anyone, but if you haven't uncovered it, email me and I'll tell you what it is.)

Non-Fiction

Part of my morning, first-cup-of-tea routine after I work on my heart rate variability (HRV) is to read non-fiction. Here are some of my favourite books from last year.

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

This book makes the argument that it's more than okay to be an introvert. Backed by research, Cain explains how introverts contribute to the world in their quiet ways. You'll learn how introverts in positions of power in business can provide much-needed balance.

The Myth of Charismatic Leadership (Chapter 2) explains why extrovert leaders are better at inspiring passive employees and introvert leaders were willing to listen and implement viable suggestions from initiative-driven employees. It seems that that the extroverts:

Can be intent on putting their own stamp on events that they risk losing others' good ideas along and allowing workers to lapse into passivity. (Page 57)

If you're an introvert, you'll definitely want to read this book, especially if ever you've been made to feel "less-than" by your more gregarious, out-spoken colleagues and peers. Quiet is a must for teachers, as well as for curriculum designers. After reading this book, they may rethink the way in which you set up their classrooms and the demands they make of their students.

The New Groupthink* is also practiced in our schools, via an increasingly popular method of instruction called 'cooperative' or 'small group' learning. In many elementary schools, the traditional rows of seats facing the teacher have been replaced with 'pods' of four or more desks pushed together to facilitate countless group learning activities. (Page 77)

As a former teacher, I've been there and done that. Cooperative learning and group learning were the leading theories of the day, along with Whole Language - but that's a topic for another post!

Almost as if it's an intentional segue into the next book, the necessity of solitude is explained with research from Anders Ericsson:

Deliberate Practice** is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that's most challenging to you personally. Only when you're alone, Ericsson told me, can you go 'directly to the part that's challenging to you. If you want to improve what you're doing you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class—you're the one generating the move only a percentage of the time. (Page 81)

On page 266, Cain concludes by saying:

Some people act like extroverts, but the effort costs them in energy, authenticity, and even physical health. Others seem aloof or self-contained, but their inner landscapes are rich and full of drama. So next time you see a person with a composed face and a soft voice, remember that inside her mind she might be solving an equation, composing a sonnet, designing a hat. She might, that is, be deploying the powers of quiet.

Are you an introvert, extrovert or somewhere in between? Have you changed as the years marched by?

*The New Groupthink is the author's description for a phenomenon that "elevates teamwork above all else. It insists that creativity and intellectual achievement come from a gregarious place." (page 75)

**Deliberate Practice involves the identification of the tasks and skills you need to improve. Working on them deliberately while monitoring your progress.

2. Solitude - A Singular Life in a Crowded World by Michael Harris

True solitude - as opposed to the failed solitude that we call loneliness - is a fertile state, yet one we have a hard time accessing. Once we do make room for it, though, we discover there are needful things hidden in that empty space, still waiting between the flash and action of our social lives. As my research continued, I began to remember a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time. I couldn't wait to meet myself again. (Page 29)

Solitude is about reclaiming the part of ourselves that is drowned out by the constant assault of noise. We're bombarded with televisions that entertain numb us, even in fancy restaurants as I recently discovered. (What is up with that?) Social media is often far from social, as is pointed out by this farcical clip. We're forgetting how to be alone with ourselves and on the odd chance it does happen, we're uncomfortable, so much so, we're quickly reaching for our device.

The naked self, then, is a bogeyman.

From emojis and giphs, to way-finding (online agrregators that follow our digital slime and shape how we think, what we read, where we eat), we're losing out. FOMO - Fear of Missing Out and EIDI - Everyone Is Doing It, pulls us further from the time we need for the development of new ideas and self-discovery.

This book is a salute to the benefits of solitude, as much as it is a call to get out and enjoy nature.

Nature's benefits may still be given short shrift, though, because the online platforms that manage and guide so much of our lives do not benefit from promoting access to wilderness. Even the semi-enclosure of cities has become too 'wild' a thing for some, and entire campuses have been designed in Silicon Valley where tech workers can eat, sleep, and playing a latter-day Jericho—a sanitized bubble. (Page 144)

Harris backs up his work with plenty of research, including this footnote on page 39 that dispels the myth that solitude is bad for society:

Eric Klinenberg, in Going Solo, argues that our ability to be happily alone is actually a sign of strongsocial ties, not a lack therof. he notes, for example, that the countries with the highest rates of solo living—Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark—are all countries famed for their communal support.

Read the book. Cultivate some just-for-you time. Note how you feel. Work through those first flutters of fear. Stick with it.

Note: eremophobia, the fear of being alone, or of loneliness, can be successfully treated.

3. Creative Confidence - Unleashing the Creative Potential within Us All by Tom & David Kelly

This book is brimming with real-world examples of how creativity can be put to use to fix what's broken. You'll learn through the many real-life examples how problems and challenges were resolved and overcome with a creative approach. There are some wonderful strategies to foster communication, as well. Here are 3 of my favourite examples:

  1. The head of pediatric intensive care unit (ICU) at Great Ormond Street Hospital, London was concerned about the chaotic transfer of patients from surgery to ICU. He was inspired while watching the efficient movements of the pit crew in a Formula One race. So he brought in a Ferrari pit crew member to coach the medical team. As a result, the staff learned new behaviours and were able to streamline strategies. It paid off in a 42% reduction in technical errors and 49% reduction in information errors. (Page 81) (See: A Hospital Races To Learn Lessons Of Ferrari Pit Stop.)
  2. "Negative or defeatist attitudes spawn negative or defeatist words." (Page 198) "I can't." "We've tried that already." "That will never work." Teach your team (and yourself) to substitute those creativity-stifling phrases with one that inflate the creative process. "How might we__________?"
  3. I particularly liked Creativity Challenge #5 on page 225. When you have to give feedback, do it in a way that is constructive. "I like__________." "I wish__________." The goal of this exercise is to knock down the defensive or defeatist postures and replace them with ones that allow for growth and risk-taking. If you're curious about this, you'll just have to read the book, won't you?

Perspective is important in addressing and undressing your stress. This quote of page 156 refers to how a flight attendant saw her job as a "caregiver in the air." "What matters most about your career or position is not the value that others put on it. It's how you view your job. It's about your dreams, your passion. Your calling.

This reminds me of a man I see in a ticket kiosk who always has a kind word and a smile for everyone he interacts with. I often see people stopping by, just to have a chat. In his quiet, friendly way, he is like the Lucy's 5¢ Psychiatry booth cartoon, providing a lift to the people who stop by.

4. Why Isn't My Brain Working by Datis Khazzarian

My interest in the importance of the gut health was piqued after watching It Takes Guts on The Nature of Things. My research eventually led me to Dr. K. This hefty tome of 21 chapters is filled with information and suggestions that have you thinking in a new way about your brain and how your gut health impacts it. Whether you decide to go the whole hog, or simply nibble at the ideas presented in this book, you'll have a lot to digest.

I have often written about the impact stress has on inflammation. Soaking in negative thoughts and emotions affect our well-being. Here's what Dr. K has to say:

Inflammation from factors such as heated arguments, over-exercising, or lack of sleep can activate the mid-brain and increase stress. (Page 97)

Dr. K's brain is definitely working, as attested by his long list of accomplishments in medicine. His work includes the fields of functional medicine, functional neurology, toxicology, autoimmunity and nutrition. He also participated in Dr. Mark Hyman's informative Broken Brain series.

5. How Memory Works - and How to Make It Work for You by Robert Madigan, PhD

Romantic Dragons Eat Vegetables And Prefer Onions is just one of the many memory strategies you'll learn in this book. At the end of each chapter you're sent to the Memory Lab, where you'll put into practice the theory of that particular chapter.

I was delighted to read about the fire-enhancing reason dragons eat vegetables and why onions reign supreme. That's the e in "eat", which stands for Elaborate; one of seven ways to make a memory stick.

Work through the suggestions in this book, especially if you want to avoid "tartling." Tartle is a Scottish verb meaning to hesitate while introducing someone, due to having forgotten his/her name. This is one of the 102 foreign words for which we have no English equivalent found in a post on Stephen Liddell's blog.

Madigan also mentions that distraction, rather than a working memory problem, is at fault when someone goes into the kitchen for something and forgets what it was they were going there for. Incidentally, one of the big attention grabbers, and hence a distraction, is stress, which I've written about here and here.

There are chapters devoted to the different memory requirements you would ordinarily have, including numbers, names, and facts, as well as how to remember your life.

Every man's memory is his private literature. - Aldous Huxley

Make the time to implement the suggestions in this book and expand the "literature" in your personal library.

Over to you:

  • What is your favourite genre?
  • Do you have any recommendations?
  • Book-book or e-book?
  • When and where do you do your reading?

Books and more books

Just in case your reading list isn't long enough, here's a recommendation from the British Columbia Teachers' Federation: 100 Best Books for BC Secondary School Students. Here's another list, courtesy of Amazon. How many of these titles have you read?

Related posts:

2 Replies to “Favourite Books of 2017”

  1. We are certainly friends in kind. Every night I read before bed. I love fiction, though sometimes I do read nonfiction. Of course because I am a writer and have been working on a novel, I often take notes on passages, as you have done here, to spark my own work, remind me of how my MC might react in a similar situation. Reading is powerful and important and your list contains some books that I have also read. Recommendations: LIGHT & DARK Writers on Creativity, Inspiration and the Artistic Process; anything by Marilynne Robinson, especially HOME. Anything by Elizabeth Strout.

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