Weekly Musing: Oh, What a Joy

Last week I picked my least favorite books read in 2014. In an effort to end the year on a positive note this week I list the books I thoroughly enjoyed reading. These books tickled me as a reader, but as a writer they made me envious (in a good way) as well as showed me what is possible with the written word.

In no particular order, here at the books which were absolute joys to read this year.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank: Shockingly enough I had never read this book before. It was never assigned reading and I wish it had been. I’m glad I finally made time to read it because it is a book everyone really should read at least once in their life.

What struck me most about the story was just how somewhat normal her life was before and during her time hiding in an attic. Anne was a normal girl expressing how much she didn’t get along with her mother and sister, how much she adored her father although a gulf eventually developed between them as Anne got older, and boys she liked or boys who liked her but she wasn’t interested in.

Another thing I found interesting was her optimism and philosophy regarding life. Yes, times were incredibly rough, scary, and worrisome but even when the writing was on the wall, she was still optimistic. She still dreamed of what she would be when she became an adult. Anne Frank talked about not wanting to have the kind of life typically expected of females back then. She aspired to be a writer (I daresay she probably would have been a great one) and travel. It also floored me how mature she was yet still discussed moments of pure childish behavior. I certainly wasn’t anywhere near that level of thinking when I was her age.

I’m glad her father allowed it to be published with very few passages excised. He very well could have censored Anne Frank’s thoughts about her mother and sister, her thoughts about her own changing body, the crushes she had, etc. but he left those in to show the world how normal his daughter was.

Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall: I don’t know how she did this but Ms. Crandall managed to make a story told in first person by nine-year-old girl living in Mississippi in the ’60s incredibly powerful. The author very well could have made her main character, Starla, very precocious and wise beyond her years but she doesn’t. She can be annoying which is fine because that’s how a stubborn nine-year-old would legitimately act. She doesn’t understand a lot about the world but she recognizes injustice when she sees it. It frustrates her that her solutions to problems won’t work as she struggles to understand why.

Most of the year Starla is by her grandmother while her father works on oil rigs down in the Gulf of Mexico. Her grandmother makes no secret about her resentment and hatred of Starla’s mother and takes it out on her granddaughter. Eventually Starla runs away, hoping to get to Nashville to live with her mother who went there trying to break into the music industry. Very soon, though, a rural black woman, Eula, who has taken a white child she saw abandoned on the church’s door step, picks up Starla. Through a series of very harrowing circumstances, Eula, Starla, and the baby have to flee.

This book was very difficult to read because throughout I was really hoping things would get better. Just as it seemed Starla and Eula had found kind people, something would happen which forced them to run again. The character of Eula broke my heart. She’s one of those people in life who is so sweet and good but, for whatever reason, life literally beats her down constantly. You really root for her to have a happy ending because she so richly deserves it. If she were a real person I’d like to give her a hug. Far and away she was my favorite character in the book.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut: My spouse is a big Vonnegut fan, especially of this book. The book bounces back and forth in time between the ’60s and early portions of Billy Pilgrim’s life, mainly focusing on Billy’s experience in WWII. Billy comes to believe he’s been abducted throughout his life by aliens and for some reason relives certain moments. It’s really difficult to explain the book other than it is both an anti-war novel (rare to read one against WWII) with humor and a sci-fi novel.

It is a quick read yet the structure and style of the book requires the reader to pay attention. Definitely a novel that needs to be read more than once as it is very easy to miss things. Honestly, the best way I can explain the book is just pick it up and read it.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole: Apparently this was the year I wound up reading a few absurdist books. Set in 1960s New Orleans the book is a riot.

The main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, is utterly unlikeable yet that doesn’t prevent the book from being unlikeable. Reilly, who has a Master’s degree, is lazy and pretentious slob who complains about living with his mother yet has no desire to actually move out despite numerous threats to. He is forced to find a job to pay off legal fees incurred during an incident involving a car accident. Naturally he hates his job and causes all kinds of destruction whenever he goes. He really is a hurricane.

I couldn’t help but think had Reilly applied his intellect, and he is legitimately smart and well-spoken, to the real world, he could have been a success in life. And his mother wouldn’t have to hide wine bottles in the oven. And a bird wouldn’t have attacked Ignatius.

The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson: Incredibly imaginative and magical, the book is a very quick read. It’s a fantasy novel revolving Shai, a thief with an incredible magical ability to be able to rewrite the history, or soul, of any object using stamps she creates.

The Emperor has been murdered by a rival group and is being kept alive until Shai can create a set of soul stamps. With the soul stamps, it is hoped the Emperor can be brought back to life to continue to rule. However, Shai doesn’t have much time to create these soul stamps. In order to create a soul stamp, something which is very much illegal, she must learn absolutely everything about the Emperor’s life in order to produce a perfect replica so she’s under a huge amount of pressure to learn every minute detail of a stranger while at the same time making sure the stamps she does produce of his soul will work.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: I have not seen the Starz series based on the books and have only read the first book in the series. It combines elements that in theory, shouldn’t work but they do. It’s an epic time-travel, historical fiction, and romance novel. Again, on paper that sounds like the ingredients for a hot mess of a story but it is far from it because Gabaldon has such well-developed characters, a great understanding of the setting (it’s set in Scotland yet the author is an American living in Arizona), and wonderful dialogue that you can’t help but fall into this world.

Claire is our main character. The story opens up with her and her husband enjoying a second honeymoon in Scotland shortly after the end of WWII. Throughout most of their marriage they have been a part as her husband was fighting and she worked as a nurse. With the end of the war, they are finally able to focus their attention on their marriage. But, one day Claire is out gathering plants, she love botany, steps through a circle of stones and is thrown back to 1743 Scotland. It’s the same place she was in but a different time period which happens to coincide with when her husband Frank’s look alike relative was terrorizing the Scottish countryside.

Claire is kidnapped by a Scottish clan and has to convince them she’s not an English spy. Eventually she falls in love with a local man, whom she is told she has to marry if she wants to stay protected.

Throughout most of the book she patiently waits for her moment to find the circle of stones she passed through in order to hopefully get back to the correct time. The whole time no one knows because who would believe her?

Again, this sounds utterly ludicrous but honestly, you just have to read the book to realize it works. I can’t wait to read the other books in the series because I’d love to know how Gabaldon has stretched this out to 8 large books.

The Martian by Andy Weir: This was a book club selection and one I was disappointed I couldn’t attend the meeting for because this book was just awesome. I don’t read hard sci-fi because my brain isn’t meant to handle hardcore physics, chemistry, math, and biology discussions. This book, though, is written in such a way it makes it very accessible to even us Liberal Arts majors.

Mark Watney is stranded on Mars due to an accident in which the crew he was a part of had to evacuate the planet thus leaving him behind. This isn’t man’s first trip to Mars and in fact Mark was part of the third group to explore and briefly live on Mars. It’s an incredible survival story as Mark has to figure out how to stay alive until the next group of astronauts can come get him. Unfortunately, that would be several years so everyone at NASA feverishly works for over a year to find a way to get Mark back.

The story is mostly told through Mark’s Sol (journal) entries as he catalogs his survival journey. He is sarcastic and funny which is his way of dealing with the stress of the situation. Life on Mars isn’t easy for him as he suffers a number of setbacks, a couple of harrowing ones, but always gets himself out of a jam using his enormous resolve.

I loved how Mark interacted with other people when he was able to devise a communications system. I loved how he grumbled about how much he hates potatoes, the 1970s TV shows and disco music his commander brought with her for the trip, and the overthinking NASA was doing on the ground. He does express fear and loneliness which further fuels his enormous drive to get off of Mars or die a glorious death trying.

That’s it. My favorite books I read in 2014. I’m glad the list was longer than the stinkers were. Shows I have good taste in books. As you can see, it didn’t matter much to me what genre these books come from; they all shared the things I look for most in a good read. Great, relatable characters, exceptional dialogue, and a wonderful ability to take the reader anywhere in the world. Inspiration for my own writing.

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