37 Books in 2017

My reading goal for 2017 was 35 books. Below you’ll find several of my favorite themes – ecology, music, spirituality, and grammar. But there are also several books about Jane Austen as July marked the 200th anniversary of her death.

I’m feeling rather hip as many of these books actually came out in 2017, so I read them hot off the presses! Here’s what I read this year. As always, I’ve left mini commentaries beneath the selections I particularly enjoyed.

  1. To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings by John O’Donohue
  2. Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery
    I have such fondness for Anne Shirley, and I loved this latest installment of her adventures.
  3. The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel
    This might just be my favorite book of the year! That is all.
  4. Arda Inhabited: Environmental Relationships in The Lord of the Rings by Susan Jeffers
    Outstanding book! Scholarly work but accessible and fascinating examination of Tolkien.
  5. The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine N. Aron
    I came across this book because Susan Cain referenced Dr. Aron’s research in her incredible book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Aron’s work on sensitivity is groundbreaking and validating!
  6. The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark
    Though this isn’t my favorite Clark volume, all his books are fabulous. He is a down-to-earth writer and offers lucid strategies for improving reading and writing.
  7. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel
  8. Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon and Mars by Nathalia Holt
  9. Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More — Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior
    A compelling and beautifully written biography with rich historical context.
  10. The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places by Bernie Krause
    Fascinating and lovely!
  11. Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill
  12. Scales to Scalpels: Doctors Who Practice the Healing Arts of Music and Medicine by Lisa Wong
  13. Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy
    How could I not read everything by Macy, who is a brilliant eco-philosopher and translator of Rilke? Her On Being interview was absolutely beautiful.
  14. Snobs by Julian Fellowes
    The creator of Downton Abbey is a great novelist! This one was wonderful as an audiobook.
  15. Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything by Margaret Wertheim
    While I enjoyed this book, I preferred Wertheim’s On Being interview.
  16. A Little Book of Language by David Crystal
  17. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
  18. Ain’t She Sweet? by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
    You MUST listen to this as an audiobook. Normally I can’t stand romance novels, but this one is hilarious and so well done! It’s right up there with Laurie Colwin’s Happy All The Time, which I reread often.
  19. The Colony by Jillian Weise
    Snarky, creepy, and curious. This is a short and weird novel that asks good questions.
  20. An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage
  21. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
    Beautiful prose, thoughtful writing, wonderful stories.
  22. Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
    Ever since I saw Haupt’s TEDx Talk, I wanted to read all of her books. I’m currently reading Crow Planet because Mozart’s Starling was so wonderful!
  23. Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly
    The best Austen book I’ve read all year! I’ve got more to read, but this one is absolutely fantastic! Kelly examines the subtle political and cultural critiques in Austen’s novels. Austen wasn’t as detached as everyone claims.
  24. Suites for the Modern Dancer by Jill Khoury
    Read my full-length review here.
  25. Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence by Rick Hanson
  26. Longbourn by Jo Baker
    This is the “below stairs” story that unfolds alongside Pride and Prejudice. It’s compelling and respectable.
  27. Grace (Eventually: Thoughts on Faith) by Anne Lamott
  28. Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder
  29. The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn
    Listen to the audiobook of this one. It’s a gripping, meticulously researched novel about Austen’s life. Very well done!
  30. Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley
    This is an excellent book on Austen! If you are on the fence, watch this hour-long preview.
  31. Victoria, the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird
    Long but worth it! Lots of great stories about Victoria.
  32. Juliet’s Answer: One Man’s Search for Love and the Elusive Cure for Heartbreak by Glenn Dixon
    Save your time and just enjoy the  Shakespeare Unlimited episode about this one. The book was pleasant but not as thrilling as I’d hoped.
  33. Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds by Carmine Gallo
    This book is actually more useful than the official TED book on public speaking by Chris Anderson.
  34. Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling
    Fun but not as good as her first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
  35. Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar by David Crystal
    As always, David Crystal is a delight! I loved his attention to grammar pedagogy and child development in this book.
  36. Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David
  37. The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family by Josh Hanagarne
    I had not heard of this book until it came up as the FSCJ Author Series book for 2017-2018. I enjoyed Hanagarne’s wit and bookishness, and I’m looking forward to author events coming up.

What have you been reading this year? What’s your goal for next year? Comment below and share your literary explorations!

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Lasting Impressions

When I was nine years old, I longed to use the words amiable, countenance, and clergyman – though they never appeared in my spelling or phonics workbooks. I knew what it meant if a manor was entailed away, and I guessed that £2,000 in the 19th century was a sizable fortune. I understood that the oldest daughter in a household was addressed by her family name while her younger sisters would be addressed by their first names. I recognized that married women always wore a head covering: a wide-billed bonnet or a lacy cap. Sometimes the caps had ribbons or draping fabric that gave the lady’s gestures a swaying elegance.

I absorbed these extra-curricular customs by watching the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries with my great-aunt, who explained the finer details of Regency culture around the familiar onscreen dialogue. I had first encountered Pride and Prejudice through a children’s TV show, “Wishbone,” in which a remarkably literary Jack Russell terrier guided viewers through abridged versions of the classics. Wishbone narrated in 25 minutes what Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehie dramatized in 5 hours – and I was enthralled with every second.

I loved the characters, especially stoic Mr. Bennet, melodramatic Mrs. Bennet, witty Lizzy Bennet, ebullient Mr. Bingley, and unctuous Mr. Collins. I appreciated how each character seemed like a real person, someone I could meet (or choose to avoid). And I loved how long it took for the couples to finally coalesce. Both Jane and Lizzy met their beaux in the first installment, but the couples weren’t solidified until the final installment; the in-between time covered family dramas and personal revelations.

Along with the characters and their vocabulary, I developed a penchant for the sounds of the series. I contrasted the tinny notes of the 19th century pianoforte with the full-bodied timbre of my grandmother’s honey-colored upright. I admired the delightful crunch of gravel beneath sturdy Georgian shoes. For weeks after I first saw the series, I shuffled my feet across any paved surface – hoping to replicate the textured noise of gravel underfoot. And I liked the deep clink of heavy silverware in use, the hearty swish of cloth napkins and table linen, the hollow snap of closing doors.

While I watched the characters adjust bonnet-ribbons or trade places on the dance floor, the author herself hovered in the background. I vaguely understood that this lively and colorful world had been created by Jane Austen. I knew that Austen had never married, that she wrote in the early 19th century, but to me, she was only a name.  When I was ten, I decided to read Pride and Prejudice and meet Ms. Austen on the page. From the book’s first paragraph, I recognized lines skillfully repurposed in the onscreen version, and I felt confident navigating Austen’s prose.

Austen continued to be extra-curricular: I didn’t encounter her work in a schoolroom until eleventh grade – and even then, the excerpt we read was part of a mock final exam, not a serious literary immersion. My teacher chose the passage where Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth, and I instantly recognized his pompous, unromantic language. In the same year, I took a similar test to measure my reading level, and the passage indicating  a twelfth-grade reading level also came from P&P: it was the scene where Lizzy Bennet first visits Pemberley.

In the same eleventh-grade English class, I discovered Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and her ardent discussion of early women writers motivated me to reexamine Austen’s work. When I reread P&P, I found that none of my early enthusiasm had waned: I still felt an unruly admiration for Jane Austen’s prose. I knew I wanted to spend my life working with great women writers, in person or in print.

Early on, I only knew Austen through P&P, but I eventually moved through her other novels – Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. So far, Persuasion, the story of the contemplative Anne Elliot, is my favorite Austen work, with Mansfield Park at a close second. Persuasion is an ecstasy of balance and precision while Mansfield Park is an untidy journey of self-discovery. Emma, in print and onscreen, is my least favorite Austen creation, but even here, she displays superb character-building.

After exploring most of her work, my curiosity about Austen’s life has led me to some “on Austen” reading. I enjoyed John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen (2013), which explains how age, money, names, and even British seaside resorts work as cultural code – often misinterpreted or totally ignored by 21st-century readers. Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen (also 2013) recounts the details of Austen’s life through treasured objects – an Indian shawl, a small notebook, a portrait – and describes how early family biographers strove to color Ms. Austen with appropriate Victorian modesty.

In Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (2010), Claire Harman devotes an entire chapter to debunking the modesty myths. According to family biographers, Jane Austen didn’t struggle with her writing or worry about making money. She didn’t value her work enough to be mortified by failure  or overjoyed with success. She wasn’t worldly, never traveled far, didn’t look beyond her home sphere. She was satisfied with the crumbs of a literary life.

I don’t need Claire Harman to point out the falsehood here, but I’m glad she does anyway. To create such crystalline, proportionate prose, Austen had to care about her work; she had to consider it a worthy venture, or she would’ve spent her time elsewhere. Luckily, Harman has found passages in Austen’s letters that contradict the Victorian “model authoress” – passages that show the author’s spirited devotion to her craft.

Though Austen’s birthday was December 16, I am continuing my festivities: revisiting my favorite Austen texts and Austen-inspired media. I need to honor the woman who encourages me to write and pulls me toward kindred spirits – the woman whose work has been part of my orbit for 18 years.