The Best Books I Read Last Year

In the last year I read number of books I recommend. I‘ve become a little stingy with the number of stars I give a review – am I becoming jaded by the plethora of good books? Or maybe I should just give up the star system; sometimes it is like comparing apples and oranges.  All of the following are well written, but their place in my heart (rating) is based on just that. (No two people read the same book.) Fiction dominates my short list of nine, and of these, all but one are historical novels – I guess that is my favorite genre.

quiet-bookIn nonfiction my favorite book by far was Quiet by Susan Cain. The full title tells you a lot: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Carl Jung gave us the terms “introvert” for personality types drawn to the inner world of thought and feelings and “extrovert” for those drawn to the external life of people and activities. Gregarious extroverts are the life of the party because their brains are good at handling competing attention, whereas an introvert may feel overwhelmed by the noise and multitasking of the group setting and prefer one-on-one or a quiet evening at home. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert who loves or works with one, this book is enlightening. Extroverted personalities are appealing yet let’s not forget great introverts such as: Frederic Chopin, Albert Einstein, William Butler Yeats, George Orwell, Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi and JK Rowlings.

 41bdVJOBoxL._AC_SX60_CR,0,0,60,60_ One highly acclaimed book I gave only four stars was The Luminaries. Here’s why:  it is no easy read and yet it is worth the effort – and that’s the gist of it.  It was more of a mental challenge than pleasure to spend time with and it is LONG.   The truth is if I had never heard of it and had not known it won a Booker Prize I probably would have put it down after 50 pages.  (I felt the same way about The Goldfinch last year – sorry fans, but where was her editor?)  It’s a commitment to get through some 850 pages of changing points of view within chapters, time jumps (wait a minute that guy was dead 100 pages ago), “telling vs. showing” and dozens of characters, each with seemingly tangential stories that the reader has to keep straight. The setting, the West Coast gold rush of New Zealand, is marvelous however. In sum, Eleanor Catton breaks all the rules -and gets away with.

Others I recommend  are The Infatuations by Javier 41A22DyqYgL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Marias and Euphoria by Lily King.  (These authors are both five star writers but I base my honest opinion on how much I personally enjoyed the story.)  The Infatuations is set in Spain, and deals with death, desire, and the effects of chance and timing on outcomes. More than one infatuation is going on in this suspenseful, often dark story.  It is an intellectual novel, interesting and different, but at times pedantic with lengthy digressions.                        I love 51s2YlJboaL._AC_SX60_CR,0,0,60,60_historical fiction and have an interest in anthropology so Euphoria fit that criteria. King depicts Margaret Meade and her two lovers in the river villages of New Guinea in the 1930s and transports you in time and place; I should give it 4 1/2 stars.

wingsThe Invention of Wings, came very close to the 5 star mark. I was hesitant to read another book on the horrors and degradation of slavery, but this is a powerful novel – and based on real-life remarkable women of the time.

searchAccabadora by Michela Murgia is a little gem of a book, well-known in Italy, which won a number of European prizes. The novel takes the reader into village life in Sardinia in the 1950s.  The remarkable Bonaria is the “Accabadora” who eases the suffering of the dying, and sometimes ends it.   When her adopted child discovers this, she feels betrayed and rejects her.  A beautiful slice of life– set in a culture and place not many of us have experienced.

I’ll save my top three novels for next time – tune-in next week.

Have you read any of the above? If so do you agree/disagree?   Please share with us which books you enjoyed by commenting below.


More about “Quiet – The Power of Introverts…”

Whether you are an introvert yourself or an extrovert who loves or works with one, this book is enlightening.  Susan Cain wrote it to promote understanding and to empower the less outspoken part of the world.  “I hope you take away a sense of entitlement to be yourself”… “Once you understand introversion and extroversion as preferences for levels of stimulation you can situate yourself in environments favorable to your own personality” – she calls these sweet spots – and feel more energetic.  Extroverts are sociable because their brains are good at handling competing attentions at a party, whereas an introvert may feel overwhelmed by the noise and multitasking required of the group setting and prefer  one-on-one on a serious topic… or a quiet evening at home.


Introverts are often individualistic – sometimes described as eccentrics – and independent thinkers.  A note written by Charles Darwin makes me smile:

  “My dear Mr. B… I am very obliged to you for (invitations) to your parties, but I am afraid of accepting them, for I should meet people there to whom I have sworn I never go out.”!



Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who wrote Flow, studied the lives of exceptionally creative people and found that many were on “the social margins during adolescence” because their “intense curiosity or focused interests seemed odd to their peers”.  As teens they may be shy loners, but many bloom into creative personas because solitude can be a catalyst for innovation.

Cz. Mihaly

Cz. Mihaly

Cain dispels the myth of brainstorming, finding that the autonomous employee come up with more resourceful ideas. A study found that top programmers had one thing in common: they all worked for companies that gave their workers personal space and freedom from interruption. I once worked long hours in an office where most of us were assigned to cubicles and I found it difficult to concentrate in the swirl of noise and constant disruption of people walking by my desk.  A short time later I began to work for myself and was pleasantly surprised at how productive I became – and how much more I enjoyed working. I was more energetic since I could take a break whenever I needed and make up the time earlier or later in the day.  (This need to recharge is something people who run on adrenaline find hard to understand.)  The only thing I missed was going to lunch with my colleagues.

CEOs are often charismatic, but the highest performing companies in one study showed that were led by quiet, unassuming personalities who were thoughtful in their leadership style – rather than eloquent and decisive.  Quiet persistence lies at the heart of excelling academically, but also the political triumphs of modest men like Nelson Mandela.      

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Sensitive children are apt to feel more guilty and anxious about their transgressions than others.  Although hard for them, guilt is a building block of conscience and empathy that may also promote altruism and responsibility.  Parents note: these are the easier kids to raise! Of course this doesn’t mean they are little angels – they may be seen as aloof or even unfriendly.

Here is a constellation of adjectives that people associate (rightly or wrongly) with the two different personalities.

Extroverts: expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, aggressive, risk-takers, thick-skinned, bold.

Introverts: reflective, antisocial, quiet, composed, nerds, cerebral, gentle, serious, shy, thoughtful, sensitive, modest.

People are complex so there are of course different kinds and degrees of introversion and extroversion.  Who are the well-known personalities that you can categorize in either camp?  How about yourself, your family or fellow workers?

Introvert Alert

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

I’m excited about Susan Cain’s new book Quiet – The Power of the Introvert. I just started it, but want to write about the subject anyway.  I’m betting that most writers, and perhaps more creative people, lean toward introversion – maybe even most bloggers. What do you think?   (She writes that 30 to 50% of the population are introverts.) For that matter it seems to me most protagonists are not extroverts.  We give them a voice – and in doing so they give us our voice.   (I was raised in a household where children were seen but not heard.)

quiet pursuits_0182

Solitary pursuits

But I’m a closet introvert. I can carry on a conversation or tell stories at a party.  People compliment me on public speaking yet I find it drains me for the whole day – the preparation beforehand and the exhaustion afterward.  I’m able to do this because I pushed myself from an early age, but if I was an extrovert I would be energized by the attention. 

I was the shy child of a sociable diplomat.  When I was about seven years old my parents were entertaining a couple who brought their kids and it was assumed I would entertain the children.  Instead I stared at the ground and mumbled – but this didn’t last very long as my father took me aside and told me I could not be shy because I would make them feel bad. Furthermore we were guests in a foreign country and we were viewed as representatives of our own country. This had a lasting impression on me.  Not only did I become cordial in this case but years later in high school in Costa Rica, I was proud when the principal asked me to act as hostess to new kids who arrived from all over the world.  However in my twenties in New Zealand, I failed when a going-away party was held for me and I shrank when they began to clap “Speech, Speech!”  I was unable to do more than stand and stammer “thank you” after they had been so kind to me.  I vowed that would never happen again and learned how to be more gracious. (College teaching helped me.)

kids n dolls_crop0126

Some parents are disappointed by their quiet, reserved kids because extroverted personalities are so appealing.   It seems accepted that we should all be gregarious, alpha and crave the spotlight.   We want our children to be bold and outgoing and perhaps we even apologize for their shyness– yet let’s not forget some of the greatest accomplishments  by introverts such as: Frederic Chopin, Albert Einstein, William Butler Yeats, George Orwell, Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi and JK Rowlings.  They represent all fields from musicians, artists and social activists, to scientists and writers.

Frederic Chopin

Mahatma Gandi
Mahatma Gandhi

Carl Jung gave us the terms introvert, for personality types drawn to the inner world of thought and feelings, and extrovert for one who prefers the external life of people and activities.  On one side are people who tackle work quickly and like multi-tasking whereas on the other end of the spectrum are those who work deliberately and focus on one task at a time. Extroverts are the life of the party and uncomfortable with solitude; introverts may have social skills but no love for small talk and prefer to socialize in intimate groups with close friends and family

Much of the information in the two last paragraphs is from “Quiet”.   No doubt I will report on it in the next couple of weeks.  But in a nutshell the message seems to be:  “I’m Ok , You’re Ok”.

So… do you think YOU are an introvert or an extrovert? (Or an “ambivert”.) Do you get lonely or do you enjoy time alone?  A good yardstick seems to be whether you find crowds and noise over-stimulating or energizing.