A good dose of perspective is always healthy. My reading list from the last 12 months, or so, has provided me with a shot of reference that has really helped in just about any situation I’ve struggled with, as things haven’t been their usual level of awesome lately. For a while I was wondering why I kept being drawn to kind-of dark, heavy history, but now it all makes sense. Truth is always stranger than fiction anyway, and knowing the tales happened in real life, make them that much more incredible, entertaining and thought provoking. I have mentally referenced them many times, telling myself things like, “Oh, you miss your Mom? At least you’re not the Donner party”… “Oh, you feel cut off from everyone? At least you’re not living on the East side of the Berlin wall during Soviet Era Communism”… “Oh, you’re tired of staying home? At least a nuclear power plant hasn’t exploded nextdoor”. “Oh, you can’t go exactly where you want to go when you want to go there? At least you’re not on the Bataan death march, being bombed by Nazis, raped and murdered by the Tatars” etc. Really, this is healthy. I promise. More than anything, though, I have been able to go a lot of places and learn a lot of things through these fascinating, exciting books and for these reasons, I give them my stamp of approval and highest recommendation.
If you are looking for a light summer read, this isn’t your list. But if you’re interested in delving deep, learning a thing or three, and coming out with a bit more gratitude for your current existence, dig in.
- Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder. Read this if you want to commiserate on a high level about things like, not being able to visit a loved one in the hospital, or having your movement restricted. Funder interviews a variety of people of different backgrounds, political stances and ages. Most of their stories are difficult to comprehend as true and absolutely astonishing considering how close the events of them occurred to present time. Read this if you’re curious about real life for normal people in East Germany.
- Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham. Read this if you’re having a hard time wearing a mask. Because at least you aren’t in the Ukrainian city of Pripyat on April 26, 1986. We watched the HBO series, Chernobyl, and then I read the book. Usually I prefer the other way around, because characters and events tend to be better developed in written versions. However, I would recommend watching first in this case (if you feel like it is something you would watch) only because it helped me sort out the characters, and this made the book easier to follow… so many Leonids and Anatolys. Read this if you’re curious to learn about nuclear power, the societal ideals and events that led to such a travesty, radiation, and the aftermath of the explosion of a nuclear reactor. Heavy, complex topics written in a way that, like radiation, are easily absorbed.
- The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown. Read this if you miss your Mom. Because at least you’re not saying bye forever to move across a wilderness into a lot of unknown and potentially likely death. When I read this, I kept thinking over and over how grateful I am to not be a pioneer. It just sounds like misery in its highest form. Those were tough, tough people and I hold them in high admiration and gratitude for deciding the West coast-best coast was a place that America should settle and for blazing that trail. Literally. Because I once stayed a night in Truckee, California, now a town near Lake Tahoe, where the Donner party was infamously stranded and the hardest thing we had to deal with was a wait at the restaurant and deciding Chardonnay or Cab at the wine bar. Thanks, and cheers to you, pioneers. Really read this if you want to know what it was like to cross the continent in a covered wagon and all the gritty details of what happened to the fated Donner party.
- The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman. Read this and be reminded of the horrors of war for everyday people and an account of one family’s life in Warsaw during World War II. I just re-read The Zookeeper’s Wife for the second time, because I figured that I’d have a new and different appreciation for it, having lived in Poland for a year now and having visited Warsaw, where the book takes place. Of course, I did. I found the bits tucked in about Poland’s greater contributions to the world especially interesting. Every book I read about Poland’s history these days, gives me a greater reverence for this country. The Zookeeper’s Wife helped to rescue 300 Jews during the war. The book is a really good reminder of how much of a difference one person can make.
- Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission by Hampton Sides. Read this because no matter what you’re struggling with today, you’re not on the Bataan Death March. It might be evident by now, but I am fascinated by WWII history. While I’ve read plenty of excellent novels based on this time, I kind of wonder why any author would (no offense) waste their time (so sorry) making up a story based then, when there are an almost infinite number of absolutely incredible real-life WWII tales that could, and should be told. This is one that will help you pray hard for peace, and leave you in awe at the strength of man.
- Poland: A Novel by James A. Michener. If, at the very least, you want to really appreciate freedom, read this book. I’d say that we are blessed to live in Poland at arguably Poland’s absolute best time in history. The country has been the knot in an ever-changing, ongoing, game of tug-o’-war for at least a thousand years. It has been invaded and fought over, changed hands and shapes so many times. All the while contributing so much to the world and proving resilience time and again. I had so many “a-ha!” moments while reading this…so that’s why they are the way they are. Poland makes a lot more sense to me now, and I recommend anyone pick it up to understand how significantly a country’s history impacts and defines it today. This is historical fiction, some characters were real life figures, big events and places are true, main characters are fictional and all of this is well organized to explain a complex history that might otherwise be quite difficult to summarize in the pages of one book.
- The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. The only novel-novel on this list. Chosen because I learned about a rare genetic disorder that causes person’s skin to appear blue and I’m fascinated by genetics. And because life in Appalachia in the 1930s was hard. And because, like the Book Woman, I too like books. But I especially liked this book, and after the heavy-ish list above, it was easy to breeze through, but also gave me much to consider.
*Honorable mention goes to Miles from Nowhere: A Round the World Bicycle Adventure by Barbara Savage. Not officially listed because I just recently put it in a post of book recommendations for explorers. But I have since re-read Miles from Nowhere and cannot recommend it enough for an adventure at home. But primarily because I found it so interesting, having been written about a couple’s bicycle journey around the world from the woman’s (Barbara’s) perspective and many of the issues/events as she reports on them are so relevant today. You’ll gain insight in to local cultures as they pedal through different regions around the world, and really appreciate how far cycling technology and touring gear has come. Plus they attribute Michiganders as the nicest folks in the world. I’m 100% biased, but the author wasn’t, and they totally are.
With all this said, I think I am ready for a lighter read. What are some books you’ve read lately that you can recommend?