#206 A Year of Reads in Review

Another year over, a new one just begun… here’s the books I read in 2022 along with my personal reviews. With a few shorter ones along the way, I managed to hit my aim of a book a month, plus two spares. I feel like I’m getting busier each year, but evidently I’m currently making more time for books along the way than I did in the past.

No Time Like the Future: an optimist considers mortality by Michael J Fox is a great read. I read his first memoir Lucky Man back in the early 2000s. Somehow I missed his second one but found his third in Big W one time and bought it without a thought. It didn’t disappoint. His realistic and genuine representation of his life’s events and himself are just totally refreshing. The ongoing impact of Parkinson’s on his life and other health issues he details in the book are nothing to be sneezed at. Marty McFly is doing it tough.

I loved the humility that he displayed in this book most of all. I thought the writing was quality, but even more so the heart of the guy. I emailed his Foundation to send some laudatory comments which he probably never received. I should have just messaged him on twitter (as this was during the 2 months I was actually on the app). This book is worth your time and money. My only question is whether anyone is seriously looking into that time his Parkinson’s went away for it bit. Yes, that’s right…

The Big Sea: an autobiography by Langston Hughes was another great read but for different reasons. I had a year off teaching Year 12 in 2022, so I took the time to research this poet who I normally teach. I wanted to further my knowledge of the man who was a key player in the Harlem Renaissance and in African American writing in general. As you’ll see, I’ve read a few books on Hughes in the past 12 months. This book works through his childhood up until his young adult years.

It’s a very enjoyable read, despite the rough childhood he experienced with woefully neglectful parents. His father was particularly unkind and money hungry. His mother was a deluded, cabaret style performer who never quite made it. So Hughes didn’t see much of them in his childhood. In both his autobiographies, unlike Michael J Fox, you are left questioning the truth of Hughes’ self representation. However, considering his race, the historical context and the ever-continuing questions about his sexuality, it’s no wonder that he very carefully crafts which cards he puts on the table and when. The more I think about it, the more I believe Hughes was far more intelligent than we probably realise: possibly genius status.

Baily’s Bones by Victor Kelleher Victor Kelleher is a well-regarded Australian writer of junior fiction from yesteryear. So I was surprised to realise I’d actually never read any of his books before this one, which I taught as part of an Indigenous Perspectives unit of work. Set in NSW, Kelleher uses his teen protagonists to explore the massacres of Indigenous Australians that occurred in various locations in the past. Being originally published in 1988, the bicentenary year, the book explores a different perspective on local history through a well-constructed summer holidays narrative, at a suitable level for the intended audience.

An excellent read with an important teaching point, but the ‘ghost possession’ element may turn you off. Also, a slightly younger audience than Year 9 is probably more suitable for this book, based on my students’ reactions as the book continued.

Evidently I spent Autumn reading about Hughes…

I wonder as I wander: an autobiographical journey by Langston Hughes The truest criticism I read on this book was something like ‘He does a lot of wandering and not much wondering’. I agree. This book, whilst containing many merits, is not as thoughtful as Hughes’ first autobiography, which potentially should be considered a masterpiece. That being said, there is still food for thought, particularly in Hughes’ experiences of racism or lack thereof as he travels around the world. Such ongoing globe-trotting was uncharacteristic for African Americans at the time: a point made in the book. So his reflections are critically important in exploring racism against blacks in the 20th century.

I think the absolute treasure is towards the end of the book when Hughes spends time in Spain during the Civil War. Hughes details meeting a number of English writers whilst there, but Orwell isn’t one of them. Hughes focuses on his task of writing about African Americans’ involvement and reporting this back to the States. Whilst it has been a while since I read Homage to Catalonia, I was struck by Hughes’ understanding of the Civil War. He seems to have a significant sense of clarity, much more so than Orwell, about what is generally going on. He also seems to take that ‘penniless writer amongst the proles’ that Orwell lived also, to the next level. Perhaps he just writes better than Orwell did about it; or perhaps being already so oppressed by race he is in the ‘privileged position’ of being able to do it better.

And this coming from an Orwell fan…

Critical Lives Langston Hughes by Jason E Miller This is a short, easy read but is a helpful antidote to navigating Hughes’ representation of himself, as Miller points out elements that Hughes obviously deliberately leaves out of his portrayals of his life. One of them being a woman that he was clearly devastated over with regards to their failed relationships. In his autobiographical writing, however, her name basically just skims across the surface of a page or two, much like a rock thrown across a pond: fleeting and insignificant. She. Was. Not. This is one of the reasons why I love to read autobiographies… and then other people’s reflections on the person’s life. Very enlightening: and this offering by Miller is just that.

Jason E Miller seems to be one of the current must-go-to academics if you’re interested in learning more about Hughes. Arnold Rampersad was that person a few decades ago, so he’s another one to explore. However, Miller is now unearthing new material, particularly in relation to the connections between Hughes and Martin Luther King. This, Miller points out, is something that people have not really paid much attention to in the past.

Langston Hughes The Man, His Art and His Continuing Influence edited by C James Trotman This collection of literary criticism is from a conference in the early 1990s, on the 25th anniversary of Hughes’ death in 1967. Held at Lincoln University, which Hughes himself attended in the 1920s, the conference included presentations from the who’s-who of experts on Hughes at the time (including Rampersad). Their presentations have been transcribed and collated in this book. I particularly enjoyed Rampersad’s transcription, along with Cheryl A Wall’s exploration of Hughes and Blues Women. Hughes is frequently noted as being very much ahead of the game with his positive portrayals of women. Of note also is Steven C Tracy’s discussion of Hughes, gospel music, poetry and blues. For me, those papers were the standouts.

If interested in Hughes or literary criticism from around the 1920s, then this is a good read. And it was a good read to finish on with my reading about Hughes (for the time being).

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley As the July rains came pouring down I fittingly moved to this shocking dystopian classic: which bizarrely, I had never before read. How that came to be, when I’d heard of the book for years, is probably due to its on-again-off-again nature of being a banned book. And you can understand why. It’s just so ghastly. Disturbing elements of truth pervade the novel and we unfortunately can see modern society reflected back in too many ways. Other elements seem too far-fetched and the feminist critique on elements within the novel are obvious.

I taught extracts of the book to Year 11, which is why I read it myself. Consequently, I attempted to purchase a few copies of a graphic novel version that was apparently due for release last year. Then Amazon told me the order was cancelled with my money to be refunded. Was that book banned also?? I did wonder how they would get away with graphically representing some parts.

At risk of repeating a lesson and sounding like an English teacher… the opening two chapters do so profoundly explore Huxley’s concerns about firstly bioengineering and eugenics and then secondly, the direction of psychology in his day. And he does have a fair point, still now and then; considering that Freud was big time in those days. Speaking of which…

The Freudian Slip by Marion von Adlerstein The review quote on Amazon’s page is from The Australian Women’s Weekly so that’s a clear giveaway on the intended readership if you hadn’t already cottoned on. Looking at the publication date, I think I purchased this book about a decade ago, compelled by the title as I perused the shelves of Dymocks. Then evidently never read it until July ’22 or thereabouts. This light and witty book explores the lives of three women, of varying abilities, as they attempt to navigate the male dominated 1960s world of the advertising industry.

The strength of this book lies in the fact that von Adlerstein actually knows what she’s talking about; there’s a strongly triumphant declaration of I.Was.There. in her writing’s establishment of characterisation and context. There are times when you can sense that a writer has done their research but it’s concocted. Not so with von Adlerstein who actually worked as an advertising copywriter in the 50s and 60s. Her writing in this regard is effortlessly strong. As a side note: I also see that she’s written a book on etiquette. I’m tempted to buy it. Might compare it with Ita Buttrose’s book of the same, which I’ve already read… 🤓

However, what I didn’t like about the novel was that around about the middle, it pretty much seemed like a-bonk-a-minute plus other associated behaviours (and, hey, maybe that’s what it was like). I really would have preferred much less of this and more of the witty jokes and zesty office banter that strongly pervaded the opening.

Becoming Global Integrating Global Mission and your Local Church: a practical approach by Bruce Dipple I had to read this for my studies, but fortunately I’d already bought it and was intending to – at some point – read it. I love it when you discover you’ve already got the mandatory text on your shelves / pile on the floor. This book is exactly as it claims: a practical support to help you think more about how you and your church can get the right mindset on mission and implement it effectively in all you do.

Because I read the book as part of a course, what the book actually says and what we talked about over zoom, is a bit of a blur really. Regardless, I strongly recommend this book. Are we as Christians actually thinking about mission in a helpful and biblical way? Are we positioning ourselves in a culturally superior posture when we do so? (If so, stop that) How can we align our thinking about mission in our local area with our nature as global citizens? How do we support those engaged in global mission who are supported by our local church? All these questions and more are explored in this book by a former Director of Cross Cultural Mission at Sydney Missionary and Bible College, Bible College Principal in Niger and Australasian SIM Director.

Stolen Focus: why you can’t pay attention by Johann Hari They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but whoever did the cover design for this book did their job properly. So much so, that on a trip to Kmart without so much of any intention to buy a book, I came home with this one. I then discovered it was one of those books that everyone is reading.

There’s good reason for this. Hari systematically works through a range of issues in modern life and how these are genuinely impacting our ability to concentrate. He also bolsters his discussions with academics by inserting recounts of his hermit-like ‘detox of all things tech and modernity’ experiential experience. In so doing, Hari strengthens his argument and also gives some practical tips along the way.

Case in point: this luddite writing now. When I get a phone, I don’t think to go through the settings. I don’t ever even think about the fact that I can control the notifications that pop up on my phone. I’m well known for having my phone always on silent because “I can’t stand all the bells and whistles!” Thanks to Hari, I now have significantly fewer bells and less whistles… because you can actually turn those notifications off, can’t you? I think I’m down to text, WhatsApp, Instagram and one of those news feeds (can’t seem to get that one off…). Thank-you, Johann.

However, I must add that in one of the latter chapters where he explores issues within childhood, I felt he was a bit alarmist and captain obvious. Now, yes, this is an area which I know more about, so when he reported back from these education professors, I didn’t think the developmental psychology knowledge was anywhere near as earth-shattering as how he was representing it. These professors seemed very first-year undergraduate in the content they were exploring.

This of course made me start wondering whether Hari had been overly sensational throughout the book with content I’m not familiar with at all: for example, Silicon Valley. This was irritating, as up until this point, I’d loved the book. I ultimately came away with more tentative and uncertain praise. If nothing else, gmail no longer bothers me during the workday.

Return from a Distant Country by Alistair McGrath Alrighty, I confess straight up that reading this was a deliberate manoeuvre as I realised I was only up to ten books and it was already well into November. It’s an A5 sized paperback with 92 pages that starts on page 9 and really ends on page 82.

More importantly, it explores McGrath’s theological views on various points, in precis style. Being from a scientific atheism background, there is some commentary on this area in particular. It was a short, helpful read and having read McGrath before, I found the book unsurprisingly well-written. If you look up his academic and professional biography, it’s obvious that McGrath is of significant intellect and it’s no wonder he can write a decent book. Personally, knowing the detailed calibre of which he is capable, I found this one all too succinct (but it served its purpose well 😉). There’s nothing wrong with this book, but his writings on C.S. Lewis in my humble opinion are second to none. If you’re not into theology as much, try him on Lewis.

In Every Pew sits a Broken Heart: hope for the hurting by Ruth Graham with Stacy Mattingly Ruth Graham, daughter of Billy and Ruth Graham would probably be one you expect to have a squeaky clean life. In this book, she puts such incorrect assumptions to rest. She bravely does so for the sake of helping others and I think this is such a beautifully encouraging read. Her ongoing use of The Prodigal Son, a parable Jesus told, is effective in its pastoral message and is well-written.

This book allows you to explore your own personal issues and/or how to assist another to do so when they are hurting. Lots of churches don’t have pews anymore, but the title holds true that there are so many people in churches who are in need of pastoral care. Are we offering it? Are we welcoming the prodigal son back home? Or are we like the older son and harbouring resentment, wanting to rebuke others and see them suffer for what they have done? Ruth Graham reminds us that this is not at all what God is like, so neither should we be so inclined.

A Woman’s Guide to Fasting by Lisa E. Nelson This is such a biblically sound and practically helpful book. There is plenty in here that would be of benefit to men also, and there is only a sprinkling of more practically minded comments that are for women only: such as considering your fasting schedule in line with your menstrual cycle. Nelson is a great writer (and as a former JAG, clearly no fool) and an experienced presenter on the spiritual discipline of fasting.

The stand out line in the book is Nelson’s teaching that we don’t fast under law but under grace. With spiritual maturity and brilliant clarity, she explains the practical outworking of this throughout her book. Having picked it up and read snippets of it on and off over the last few years, it was about time I sat down and read it from cover to cover. I’m so glad I did. There are plenty of other books written by Christians about fasting. I’m sure many of them are sound too. However, I can wholeheartedly endorse this one.

One of the really profound moments in the book is when Nelson retells her call to a period of fasting in the lead up to what was 9-11. The extent of what her prayer and fasting achieved in regards to her husband’s safety is made clear as she tells the story.

I think I found this book in the bargain bin at Koorong one time. If so, jack up the price and get this book out of there!

The Single Mom’s Second Chance by Jessica Keller I definitely found this book in the bargain bin at Koorong. Dear golly, keep it in there. This title, not to be confused with Kathy Douglass’ book by the same name – who knew? – is part of the Love Inspired series, whatever that is. The inside cover informs me the series includes other such saucy titles as The Fireman’s Secret, The Single Dad Next Door and Lone Star Bachelor. I’m sure they, much like The Single Mom lead to their unsurprisingly obvious conclusions. I vaguely recollect purchasing The Single Mom with the thought that for some personal entertainment at $3, I couldn’t go wrong. Cleaning out my garage between Christmas and the New Year, I found it and decided it was surely the time of year for such tripe.

So… our female protagonist, Claire Atwood has returned to the old-fashioned, quaint tourist town of Goose Harbour after leaving for over a decade. This was due to being stranded at the altar (actually courthouse for an elopement) by the overwhelmingly (and unrealistically) good looking carpenter, Evan Daniels. They are now running against each other to become the mayor of the town.

This of course is ludicrous, as are all the ridiculous competitions they engage in, in the lead up to the election. These competitions are supposedly justified by being in the election rule book in the town’s constitution. Such implausible plot events are rife in this short novel, as are improbable character behaviours and totally unrealistic dialogue. Not to mention the terribly clunky insertion of ‘Christian truths’.

However, even with all that, I have to say that the book still on occasion manages to be concerningly enjoyable and even more worryingly edifying, because there are actually some decent spiritual points in the mix… somehow.

Yet, for all their apparent Christian-ness, these unmarried thirty year olds are suffering from a disturbingly unnecessary amount and socially inappropriate level of touching one another. Twelve pages in and he’s already got his arm around her waist and drawing her towards his chest. Sheesh! Save something up for later. And this sort of behaviour continues whilst they apparently still hate each other (but of course, they don’t really… sigh) and are going head-to-head in an election. In reality, she’d be slapping him or at least telling him he needs to ‘ask first’.

As the book continues, the ridiculous amount of touching of backs, necks, waists, shoulders, knees and – brace yourself – face nuzzling on two separate occasions is just unpardonable.

I told you to brace yourself. At least at one point it was a married couple. Claire states that she wished she hadn’t turned around to see it. Don’t we all.

Of course, they get together in the end, in a most poorly executed denouement. Part of the ill-quality comes via the fact that the mysterious reason why Evan left Claire standing alone at the courthouse all those years ago, is actually revealed at about the same time that he first puts his arms around her waist. Why this wasn’t saved up for a twist at the end is beyond me. When the female protagonist finally finds out what happens, the writing weirdly seems to take even more of a backwards step than it did about two-thirds of the way through the novel, when the adjective ‘hunky’ was used.

I’ve seen better writing from some of my Year 9 students and when NAPLAN marking. Perhaps because this book is probably written for Year 9 students…

I’m not sure what I’m most concerned by: the terrible writing or the unhelpful portrayal of romantic relationships for young Christian girls. Sure, it’s not like von Alderstein’s novel as there’s no extra-marital sex (although I’ve got some unanswered questions about Claire-bear and Pierce in New York). Still, from go-to-woe, they just can’t keep their hands off each other. Judging by the front cover of Kathy Douglass’ book – which I have not read – this appears to be a common malady in books with such a title.

The book presents all this behaviour as romance; but in reality, it’s totally socially inappropriate at points with the protagonists clearly in need of renting a room. Or better still, booking an appointment at the psychologist for some cognitive behavioural therapy, to work through some issues. In fact, there’s a fair few characters in the novel who need a visit to the Goose Harbour psychologist.

Don’t we all.

Welcome to the New Year.

Yours in enjoying reviewing that book far too much,


Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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