It’s that time again! Every single year, I have a hard time deciding on my favorites. Part of the problem is that each year I get a little bit pickier about the books I choose to read. This means that almost every single book on my list is absolutely wonderful. How do I choose? It’s so hard.
This year, I simply couldn’t choose. The problem is that I finished my Christmas book from 2015 in early January 2016, making The Island of the World an contender for this year. And then I finished Laurus in December 2016, making it also a contender for this year. The only acceptable solution was what I did there at the end.
Best Read Aloud
This one was easy to choose. We adored these stories. When an old couple’s five sons die fighting in the Civil War, all of the orphaned grandchildren “come home” to the farm in Maine to live. These stories are not only a humorous and interesting compilation of their many adventures, but also an instructive glance into post-Civil War culture.
I had a number of biographies to choose from this year, but this one was by far the most interesting to me. To be honest, it was the science aspect rather than the actual life story so much. So maybe I should have given it a science award? I dunno. Anyhow, it was a fascinating book and I loved it.
This is a thin little novel, and I read it all in a single plane ride. It was oh so good. It reminded me a tiny bit of parts of The Island of the World, but it was far easier to read. It’s an interesting picture of life in a Siberian work camp, and by the end of it, you really get a feel for what daily life was like — and how quickly we can be dehumanized by circumstances. Also: I have yet to meet a Russian novel I didn’t like.
Since I was reading Athanasius, no other book in this category really had a chance. On the up side, C.S. Lewis wrote the introduction (which is amazing), and so this is a way of giving him an honorable mention. He deserves an award, except that he really can’t compete with Athanasius! Poor Lewis. Anyhow: Athanasius. I cannot recommend this highly enough. So good.
Best Health Book
I didn’t really expect this to be riveting reading, but it turns out it kept me on the edge of my seat. I was utterly fascinated. Of course, I love a good health book, so there’s that. I’ve been thinking a lot about minerals, so this sort of fit with that. On the other hand, I’m not sure we can extrapolate much for humans from cats — other than that eating the appropriate food would be helpful. I guess what I mean is that I don’t think we can extrapolate a proper human diet from observing cats. The principles would apply, though.
Run, don’t walk, and get yourself a copy of this book if you don’t have it! You can read my thoughts on the book here. The short version is that I read it all in a short period of time and it felt like a vacation. It was truly a balm to my soul.
Books of the Year
First, The Island of the World. I already wrote about how it helped me grow a soul. It is a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching read. It’s not for everyone, I don’t think. But for those who make the journey all the way to the end of this 800+ page tome, there are some worthy rewards.
::: SPOILER ALERT :::
Laurus, on the other hand, is briefer and less painful. I don’t think I’ll be writing a full review, so I’ll say some about it here. It felt to me like I was walking through a painting. It was almost surreal, and the world in its pages was thick — I was wading through paint. It was so beautiful, and also so moving. Some of the devices used by the translator — most notably dialog with no quotation marks and Old English spelling — had a particularly haunting effect. It made me less certain. I was not always sure what was real; it often felt like a dream.
The main character, Arseny, becomes something like a saint by the end. He is both admirable as well as tragic. Early in the book, he impregnates the woman he loves, isolating her from the Church, and when she dies, she dies in their sin. Their son is stillborn; there is no consolation. Arseny inexplicably (to me — his worldview is assumed and never explained) believes he alone has the power to redeem her. I kept wishing he would find the truth of the Gospel — that it is Jesus who saves, and that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. But, alas, Arseny’s doctrine is a hard master.
There is a particularly poignant scene in the book that is emblematic of Arseny’s life and world — this world without the Atonement. Arseny is copying manuscripts during the period of his life in which he is a monk. The manuscript tells the tail of a warrior who committed fornication and then died:
He also saw two fine young men in white robes and his soul flew into their arms. And they raised his soul into the air and led him through a series of ordeals, carrying with them a small chest containing this warrior’s good deeds. And for each wicked deed there was, in the chest, a good deed and it would be taken from the chest, to cover the cost of the wicked deed. But the warrior lacked enough good deeds for the last ordeal, which was related to fornication.
It is strange to encounter a world that knows of God and knows of Christ and yet is still hopeless. There were times when I felt such grief — was this really how the world was for Russia in this time? I wanted to comfort them with the words of Paul:
God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them…
There was no need for the chest of deeds, for Christ’s chest is full to overflowing and ready to cover all.
Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.
When you read Laurus, you enter a medieval world, a medieval mentality. It is sometimes harsh and brutal. It is also glorious. It’s a world worth visiting, even though we can only do so through books. Highly recommended.
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