January 2020 Book Reviews

Last week, I promised you an article about setting goals this week. I’m putting it off. First of all, I came up with a brilliant idea for a giveaway that I want to take time with. Also, I have been on a more serious reading bender than usual and wanted to share what I’ve been reading with you!

I managed to read nine books in January! One was an audiobook, one was from the library, but the rest are pictured here. A few sick days and one transatlantic flight without videos helped me along, but I’m still a bit surprised by what I got through. I’m going to write a little bit about each of them. They’re in order of the picture if you want to skip down!

The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness is a fictional account of the last months of Ceausescu’s rule in Romania. We visited Romania a couple years ago and couldn’t find a copy of this beautifully written book while we were there. McGuinness’s writing evokes memorable images. The narrator describes all the old guidebooks he sees laying around in contrast with the tremendous building boom happening in Bucharest when he arrives. He comments that “People around here seemed to have guide books for every epoch except the one they lived in.” The atmosphere is heavy, the weight of surveillance and mistrust is palpable. If you’ve ever been to or wondered about Romania, it’s a great book to read.

My book club read Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys. We read The Underground Railroad in 2017 and were blown away by it. Nickel Boys was an interesting story but didn’t live up to our expectations from The Underground Railroad. It did, however, give us plenty to talk about. One issue that sticks out was a question about how an author writes about a place they’ve never visited. Another was the idea of “stories that have to be told” and whether we evaluate them differently as readers. This is an interesting read if those kinds of questions appeal to you.

David Lodge’s Changing Places has been on my list for a long time. It’s the first book in a trilogy about two literature professors, one English and one American, who switch places in an academic exchange. It’s a wild ride in terms of plot, and told in straight narrative, imagined articles, letters, and even screenplay. The end of this novel is one of the absolute best, most memorable endings I have ever read and as a result, I will have to find and read the next two books. It’s not that the plot was so amazing at the end but that Lodge shows himself to be an absolute master of his craft in the space of about five pages that you will never forget. You should read this one and see if you agree with me!

Free to Focus is by Michael Hyatt, who’s all about productivity. I bought his Full-Focus Planner this year and read this book to get the most out of it. The two definitely work together and in some ways, Free to Focus is a good long pitch for the planner. The thing I like about Hyatt’s approach is that he isn’t interested in productivity in order to get more things done. He believes that we have to imagine the kind of life we want to live, the priorities we want to set and then build a life that allows us to live that vision. Being more productive isn’t about getting more done but about making space for your priorities. Hyatt has suggestions about how you can make hard choices and make them with confidence. There are exercises with each chapter and you really should do them.

Calypso is the book I picked up at the airport when I realized I’d left one of my travel books at home and the other in my checked luggage. Since the in-flight movie system wasn’t working, I read the whole book before we landed in Calgary. It’s a different Sedaris here, still funny but more feeling. I sense a person here who isn’t just out for the wry observation but who’s keenly attached to family, aware of his own strengths and weaknesses, and intent on living a life that satisfies his needs for family and entertainment. I laughed less at this than, say, the Santa Diaries, but I also felt like there was something new and touching here. It’s still Sedaris full of oddity and hilarity, but with a little more emotional depth, a nice read.

The Alchemist. I read this years ago and put it aside with a bit of a snort. What a silly book. Only lately it’s come up again in other books (Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection was the last one) and I must have wanted to give it another try, because there was a new used copy in my pile of books. It’s a beautiful story about dreams and loss and sacrifices and wins. It’s about being open to signs and help and challenges. It’s about love and desire. It’s a story and does what only a story can do, which is teach you lessons that are pithy in the summing up but stick with you in their full form. If you’ve read it and scoffed before, it’s probably worth giving it a second look.

The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday was wonderful. I’ve been reading his newsletters for about a year now and I have to say he writes a ton and I always take time to read it all because there is wisdom and useful insight in every single one. He’s living an intentional life and putting it down on paper in order to share his path and perhaps open up a path for others. The Obstacle is the Way is a primer in Stoic philosophy with sections on perception, action, and will. I think that in an age when it’s so easy to research things instead of doing more, when we consume more media than we create, and when action is often imitation, this was a kick in the pants. If you want something, anything really, you’re going to have to go out there and do it. And you’re going to have to go out and do it no matter what happens. This is more than learning from your mistakes, it’s seeking wisdom in the things that get in your way. It’s a lesson in understanding life as a lesson we can learn from and inspiration for the taking if we are just alert to what’s actually arriving when we perceive an obstacle. This is my must-read from the month. It inspired me to buy Marcus Aurelius Meditations, which is a book that intimidates me, to be honest. But now I’m going to read it.

Other books I got through were Inshallah by Alys Einion and Over the Top by Jonathan van Ness. I can’t recommend Inshallah, especially if you are going to take it as insight into Saudi Arabian culture. I think it’s full of over dramatizations despite being a ripping narrative. Over the Top was an audiobook. I wouldn’t have made it through the book, but van Ness remains a character and listening to him helps. He’s very intentional in this book and is on a mission to share so others don’t feel alone. That I can appreciate. This is one of the stories that need to be told, and to be told more often by more people. Hopefully, van Ness opens a path for that to happen.

So now it’s your turn – what did you read in January? Which one book do you think we should read? Please share!

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  1. Looks like you’re on your way to the 100 club this year! I am probably one of those people who needs to reread the Alchemist. The Last Hundred Days sounds amazing.

    I read 7 in January:
    – Women Talking by Miriam Toews
    – Nickel Boys
    – Dear Ijeawele by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    – Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    – Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
    – The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis
    – On Identity by Stan Grant

    Women Talking was very disappointing and Nickel Boys I’m still not sure about. The others I really liked. Tar Baby was fantastic. On Identity is an essay by an Australian that I would highly recommend. He talks about the problem with labelling people and how he has always hated when people refer to him as Indigenous. He feels that he’s writing off his white grandmother by using this label, yet he gets accused of denying his heritage when he doesn’t use it.

    • I’d like to read On Identity. It brings to mind another book, White Nation by Ghassan Hage that I have on the shelf. I didn’t read much of it, but the description is on target, “Ghassan Hage argues that White racists and tolerant, White multiculturalists both see their nation structured around a White culture which they control, with Aboriginal people and migrants as exotic objects – what the author calls the ‘White Nation’ fantasy.” Perhaps something for you!

  2. Thanks for this post, Christine. Only now I realized how much reading I did in January (something I cannot say for this month though). Also, it was a rather nostalgic month, two rereads and one book I had on my tbr for around 10 years now.

    And I really should start reading Ryan Holidays newsletters. I have them in my inbox but never really got to them. I will give it a try!

    – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (the animated kindle version, mindblowing)
    – The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen
    – “Dear Ijeawele” and “We should all be feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ( I see patterns here)
    – Nickle Boys by Colson Whitehead
    – Krabat by Ottfried Preusler which made me fall in love with the German Language again
    – Wuthering Heights which made me grab a German book after I got frustrated by the Yorkshire dialect (okay, and actually I started it in December already, took me forever but I made it through eventually)
    – Die Känguru-Chroniken. Ansichten eines vorlauten Beuteltiers, a hilarious book about a guy whos new neighbour turns out to be a socialist kangaroo. (audiobook)

    • A book where your neighbor turns out to be a kangaroo?! Sounds completely unforgettable. I also had a hard time getting through Wuthering Heights, particularly all the atmospheric scenery parts. Jane Eyre, on the other hand – the time just melts away!

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