stack-of-booksI took the challenge this year—the Goodreads Reading Challenge. I really had no idea how many books I realistically could or would read in a year. Fearful of failing, I set the bar low. I estimated I could do a bit better than a book a month and set a goal of reading 15 books for 2015. Somewhat to my surprise, I met that goal by the beginning of summer. I cautiously added another 10 to my challenge and as we near the end of the year Goodreads says I’ve exceeded my challenge by 24% having read more than 30 books. While that number includes one book listed twice, there are other books I’ve read that I’ve not bothered to post on Goodreads. So, all-in-all, I’ve more than achieved my goal.

The majority of my reading continues to be nonfiction and generally covers one of four areas: devotional, memoir/biography, writing, or topical.

In the devotion/spiritual category, Tim Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering was especially meaningful for me. Reading and discussing this book together was the choice of the early morning women’s Bible study I was part of for 5 years in Orlando. It was a timely decision as several of us were going through a difficult stretch. In his typically thorough approach to a subject, Keller explores human suffering and the ways that various cultures, religions, and eras have dealt with it. He then moves from the theoretical to the biblical characteristics of suffering, including the sticky problem of evil. Finally, in section three he provides practical guidelines for journeying through periods of suffering. I started in this section and worked back to the earlier sections. (Keller himself suggests this as an option.) As my husband and I journeyed through what felt then like an extended period of disappointment and uncertainty, I found much comfort and encouragement in these words: “…anything that comes into your life is something that, as painful as it is, you need in some way. And anything you pray for that does not come from him, even if you are sure you cannot live without it, you do not really need.” Good to remember even in the “good times.”

It wasn’t intentional, and I didn’t realize it until now but the four memoir/biography books I read were all war-related: David Halberstam’s Pulitzer Prize-winning in-depth analysis of the military and political machinations of Vietnam (The Best and the Brightest) and Korea (The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War). A 2014 visit to the World War I Museum in Kansas City (on Veteran’s Day) prompted some reading on that war: Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and Hew Strachan’s The First World War. My takeaways from these books: how little we take to heart the lessons of history and what a gifted writer David Halberstam was. His premature, accidental death in 2007 was a loss for literary journalism.

My brother-in-law, who has devoted much of his recent retirement to tending to his 96-year-old mother (my mother-in-law), has also delved into the issues surrounding the medical industry and caring for the aging U.S. population. In Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation, Sandeep Jauhar relates the grueling physical and mental toll internship took on him. Jauhar’s memoir is also an indictment of the medical system’s bureaucracy and resistance to more effective, safer ways of training medical personnel. Jauhar continues his inside look at the health care industry in Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician. Doctors and patients are caught in a vicious cycle in which the system demands doctors prescribe often unnecessary tests to protect themselves and their hospitals from malpractice, pass the costs along to insurance companies and care receivers, then prescribe treatments which may not cure and are just as likely to rob patients of quality of life and the opportunity to die in their home or hospice surrounded by family. All in the interest of preserving the system. Juahar calls for reform, but continues to practice. That he continues to practice medicine when he seems to have such ambiguity toward it baffles me.

Katy Butler tells a similar tale in Knocking on Heaven’s Door, only from the personal perspective of the family caregiver for aging parents. ( And yes, Bob Dylan’s Knockin on Heaven’s Door was a constant refrain in my head whenever I picked up this book.) A pacemaker kept her father’s heart beating long after his other capacities were diminished. Once again, “the system” made it difficult if not impossible to simply turn off the pace maker, thus depriving Mr. Butler and his family members the peaceful, natural death they sought. Her mother took all this to heart and chose to forego cancer treatment and let nature take its course. For all its wonders, modern medicine has drastically changed the way we live and die and not always for the better.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to me in this year’s reading was discovering that there are some very good fiction writers out there and I ought to read a bit more fiction. I was especially surprised at how much I enjoyed some books completely outside my previous comfort zone—horror and magic realism. I’m probably the last person on the planet to become a Stephen King fan. Not a fan of horror movies or books or science fiction, I’d eschewed him for as long as I could. Finally, I decided I really should see what makes him such a great writer and started with a short story,  A Good Marriage and moved on to his classic The Shining (still have to see the movie). Turns out a good story told well is all it takes to be a good writer. And of course that sounds a whole lot easier than it really is. Which is why I also had to read King’s On Writing where he details his long, arduous journey to bestselling author. No overnight success, he toiled at a number of menial jobs while writing late at night and into the early morning. His characters are drawn from many of these experiences, with his own twists on their personalities and idiosyncrasies thrown in.

I was equally surprised to find myself thoroughly engrossed in and enjoying Ivey Eowyn’s Snow Child. Set in Alaska in the 1920s, a childless couple struggles to make a life in the wilderness while they grapple emotionally with the loss of a stillborn child. The “snow child” that magically and mysteriously appears and becomes like a child to them helps them reconcile their loss and renew their commitment to one another. A very impressive work from a debut author.

Finally, in the writing category, I opted to read Robert Benson’s Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of the Writing Life because I won’t be able to attend the Florida Christian Writer’s Conference where he will be speaking. Of all the books I’ve read on honing your craft, Benson gets high fives for authenticity. Honest and humorous about his own foibles, he makes no pretense of holding other would-be writers to his standards. You’ve got to appreciate that.

Just looking back over what I’ve read this year has me working on my list and challenge for 2016. How ‘bout you. What’s on your to-read list for the new year?

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