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‘Tis the season when “Top 10” lists and “Best of 2015” lists start to appear, ranking everything from most Tweeted phrases, to Hollywood power couples, to books. The latter get sliced into thinner categories every year (Best Suspense Novels, Best Romantic Suspense, etc.), so that I’m expecting to see a list of the “Top 10 Cozy Paranormal Mysteries Featuring Ghost Pets” any day now.

While compiling that list might be entertaining (in fact, it might be fun to compile a list of the most ridiculous Top Ten lists), I decided to get reflective and write a bit about the books I read this year that meant the most to me. They’re not all the same genre. They didn’t all come out in 2015; in fact, I’m not sure any of them did. But I read them for the first time this year and they changed me.

In no particular order:

H is for Hawk (Helen Macdonald). This book is part memoir, part nature guide, part biography of TH White of Once and Future King fame, and part elegy.  Strands of grief twine the narrative fibers together for a read with prose that elevated it to poetry in places, flayed me with its honesty, introduced me to a new vocabulary (yarak, anyone?), and made me think about how far I’ve strayed from what is elemental and wild, and cocooned myself in physical and emotional safety.

Travels with Charley (John Steinbeck). I blush to admit that I had never read this book, despite an Ivy League literature degree. I love Steinbeck, and this book felt so timely, with its lamenting about the decline of America (even though it was published in 1962). Even though Steinbeck doesn’t explicitly discuss an artist’s/writer’s role in preserving culture, forcing positive change, or resisting demagogues, that’s where the book took me mentally. At times, I feel that I should be doing something more “substantial” with my life than writing, but Travels with Charley reminded me of the impact writers have.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Anne Patchett). This essay collection also spoke about writing and living an authentic life. (Gee, you think those are issues I’m working through in my own life?) I expected to get the most out of the essay about writing, “The Getaway Car,” and I did appreciate it, but the one that touched me was “Love Sustained,” about Patchett caring for her aging grandmother. She doesn’t flinch from the ugliest details, nor try to make herself out to be a saint. With my own mother in her eighties (luckily still vibrant and self-sufficient, but losing confidence in herself in some ways and not finding so much joy in life anymore), this one hit close to home. I hope that I am brave enough and compassionate enough to be present for her physically and emotionally from now until she doesn’t need me anymore.

I guess if I had to isolate a theme for the books that touched me this year, I’d say it has something to do with living fearlessly (like a hawk, perhaps) and with compassion for others. I will live my life differently because of these books, and that gives me hope that writing is (or can be, at least) a calling and a blessing.

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