Other than travel and writing, books are a big passion of mine. Okay, and food. ALL the food.
I can lose myself in a good book for hours and some of my favourite places on the planet are bookstores – case in reference: Kinokuniya in Dubai. Oh how I miss that place. I lost count of the times that I’d while away a whole afternoon in there, buying stack upon stack of books (even though I already had plenty to read at home).
I’ve read a lot this year, and as an introvert books have always been the perfect form of escapism for me. I can be going through something stressful, but the minute I open a book I find myself running off to a fictional world and all is well again. And then there are non-fiction books, which fill my head with ideas and theories that I had never considered before.
“I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.”
I love this quotation by Jeannette Winterson, which is in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal. Sums up how I feel, only more beautifully.
I decided to put together a list of some of the books that have made a big impression on me this year, and what key lesson I took away from each of them. I thought this would be a great way of recommending books to you, too, in case you’re looking to add some to your reading lists!
Condensing the list down to five books was a lot harder than I thought, so I may have to do a few of these posts. But here are five of the many books that I loved in 2015…
This year I found myself gravitating towards memoirs of women who have been held hostage for ransom by pirates. I find stories of women demonstrating great strength through adversity really inspiring – they kind of give you a kick up the butt! You think to yourself “If she could do that, then surely I can also do anything I put my mind to!”
A House in the Sky is the first memoir I read this year that belongs to this category. The gist of it is: Lindhout is a woman who caught the wanderlust bug pretty early on in life. She backpacked through places like Laos, Bangladesh, India and Latin America; emboldened by this, she moved onto places like Syria, Pakistan and Sudan. From there she went onto Afghanistan and Iraq, where she built a name for herself as a television reporter. Hungering for more, she travelled to Somalia in 2008 – on her fourth day she was abducted by a group of masked men along a dusty road.
Canadian Lindhout was held hostage for 460 traumatic days, during which the conditions of her capture became worse and worse. She was beaten, raped, and lived in horrendous abandoned houses with her captors. She converted to Islam as a survival tactic, and received ‘wife lessons’ from one of her captors.
The bit that struck me the most about the book (aside from the nail-biting scenes) was how Lindhout dealt with the ordeal by practising forgiveness towards her captors. She thought of it in terms of “had I seen the things they’d seen at a young age, who knows what kind of person I’d be today,” which considering what these men did to her was highly admirable.
Favourite quotation: “By concentrating on what I was grateful for, I was able to stave off despair.”
Lesson: Practising forgiveness is good for your own inner peace.
As a feminist and a lover of literature I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t read anything by Maya Angelou until this year. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is one of the seven volumes of Angelou’s autobiography (yes, her life was that extraordinary), and focuses on her childhood with her grandmother in the American south of the 1930s. In this part of the autobiography, she gets to learn of the inequality between black people and the white folks at the other end of town, and is raped by her mother’s lover.
Years later Angelou finds herself in San Fransisco, and learns that the road to emotional freedom lies in self-love, the kindness of others, her own inner strength, and the writings of great authors. The language she uses is so poetic, which makes the book such a pleasure to read. Angelou went through a lot during her childhood and yet at no point does she come across as a victim. She smiled in the face of adversity, and used every hardship she went through as an opportunity for growth.
I am looking forward to reading more of the volumes of Angelou’s autobiography.
Favourite quotation: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Lesson: If we get rid of a victim mentality, adversity can give us our biggest life lessons. We can turn those tears into something very valuable: inner strength.
Henry Marsh is one of the UK’s leading neurosurgeons, and in his memoir he gives us an insight into the world of neurosurgery. Operations on the brain carry massive risks, and every day Marsh must make agonising decisions, regularly in the face of great urgency. In many chapters Marsh describes specific cases, from consultation right through to the operation (and the outcome). The best parts are when he gives us nail-biting (and often gross) descriptions of operations he’s performed in ‘real time.’
We quickly learn that in neurosurgery things can (and regularly do) go wrong, even when you’re one of the world’s best brain surgeons. I found myself holding my Kindle with one hand and biting my nails on the other as I read accounts of some of the surgeries that didn’t quite go to plan. Marsh shows us just how delicate brain surgery is and you find yourself secretly praying that nothing ever goes wrong with your own knocker upstairs. Reading some of the stories was heartbreaking – one minute you’re seemingly fine, the next you get a bad headache and you find out you have a brain tumour.
Marsh also holds a lot of contempt for the bureaucracy of the NHS, which further makes this a marvellous read. I read an Amazon review of the book that described him as a ‘prickly dinosaur’ but one with ‘his heart in the right place,’ which really sums him up. If you’re looking for an insight into the countless dramas that take place in a hospital, as well as a lesson in hope, you should definitely add this to your reading list.
Favourite quotation: “Life without hope is hopelessly difficult but at the end hope can so easily make fools of us all.”
Lesson: Be thankful for your health, every single day. You never know when things can take an unexpected turn for the worse.
The Humans is my favourite work of fiction of 2015. I bought it on a whim one day when I was scrolling through Amazon, and I didn’t really know what to expect, but I loved it! Professor Andrew Martin is killed and his body is taken over by an alien who is sent to earth to destroy evidence that Andrew had solved a major mathematical problem, which is an issue for the aliens who see humans as, well, barbarians (can’t really argue with them there).
The alien who has taken over his body finds himself learning more about the professor, his family and humans – things that he never expected to learn. He discovers through his interactions with Andrew’s wife and son that Andrew wasn’t a very nice man, and soon finds himself falling for the wife. He then has to decide between completing his mission and returning home to his planet, or finding a new home here on earth.
The book is funny and heart-warming, and I simply love the alien! This was one of those books that I didn’t want to ever end.
Favourite quotation: “Make sure, as often as possible, you are doing something you’d be happy to die doing.”
Lesson: It’s all too easy to judge people through the stereotypes we’re taught over time; by getting to know people on a personal level you may find that those stereotypes you hold in your mind are a load of old baloney.
Ah, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. If there’s one book that tugged on my heart strings and made me cry it’s this one. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it – the best books are always the ones that bring out the strongest reactions in you, and this one certainly fits that bill. Although now that I’ve read other people’s reviews I’ve realised that this book has been heavily criticised – probably not a good idea to read why until you’ve read it as it will give away the plot.
The blurbs on Amazon and Goodreads didn’t give much away, but when I finished the book I realised why. It would have spoiled it to know too much. So I’ll give you the bare minimum detail: Bruno’s father has received a promotion and his family must move to a new house far away. At the new house, nine-year-old Bruno finds a fence in the backyard. And it’s here where things start to get very interesting.
Favourite quotation: “The thing about exploring is that you have to know whether the thing you’ve found is worth finding. Some things are just sitting there, minding their own business, waiting to be discovered. Like America. And other things are probably better off left alone. Like a dead mouse at the back of the cupboard.”
Lesson: Even though there’s so much hate in the world, there’s also plenty of good and hope. Oh, and most adults are fools.