5 Books to Nourish the Mind & Spirit

“Best of” books to add to your list for the new year

Posted Jan 11, 2014

As I imagine many of you do, I have piles of books throughout my home and office that are in the “to be read” list that oftentimes get shunned in favor of work or other obligations. Thankfully, my completion of books read experienced a great resurgence at the end of the year while I was on vacation. As the new year is a time to reflect on the “best of” from years past, it is also a time where we put on lists what we want to complete in the coming year. For those of you still compiling that list, I would like to add the books that I read over 2013 that I found to be particularly compelling.

And just to add more motivation to the notion of elevating reading as a must-do in 2014, there are notable benefits that come from engaging in this practice, beyond the obvious (and critical) cultivation of greater vocabulary, language and writing skills. For instance, research finds that avid readers score higher on indicators for empathy, arguably one of the most critical features of emotional intelligence, in addition to it being a cornerstone characteristic for peace building and conflict resolution. Additionally, in Your Brain on Books: 20 Proven Benefits of Being an Avid Reader, the writer identifies enhancement of the senses, a boost in creativity, greater flexibility of the brain, the potential to ward off dementia, and expansion of memory, among other documented benefits, that come from reading voraciously (Taylor, 2012).

So in the spirit of becoming your best self this year and carving out time for leisure that nourishes both mind and spirit, here are some of the books I encountered last year that have stayed with me and are worth consideration:

1. The Orphan Master’s Son. Granted, I was a little late to discover this one, a Pulitzer Prize winning work of fiction from 2012. Set in the brutal dictatorship of Kim Jong Il, this sweeping epic follows the story of the protagonist, Jun Do, an orphan in North Korea whose aspirations defy the restrictions of the brutality of his nation and tests the limits of what any single person, let alone a nation, can endure. With the recent attention the media has paid to North Korea in the wake of Dennis Rodman’s outrageously nonsensical (and very public) bromance with Il’s recently anointed son, this story remains timely. Moreover, for a country that we have such little access to, let alone knowledge of, the author’s work, despite being fiction, is based on heavily researched details of the nation--a three year project that included Johnson’s visiting North Korea. The story will haunt you, the characters unrelenting in their pursuit of something greater than the inhumane and brutal world to which they have been exposed. The beauty of the book is that it is the humanity of the characters that sustain the narrative, even as they endure the worst of what humanity can unleash.

2. Eating Animals. This nonfiction book, by renowned fiction writer Jonathan Safran Foer, had been collecting dust on my shelf since its publication in 2010. As a vegan who has shunned eating animals for over a decade now, I smugly thought, what could be in this book that I don’t already know? Turns out, a lot. In the same vein as the iconic Jungle by Upton Sinclair or the more recent Fast Food Nation, it is no exaggeration to state that this book is not only a necessary critique on what we consume as Americans, but is beyond compelling in the depth and breadth of exposure of factory farming methods that Foer penetrates in service of his readers. Part memoir and part investigative report, Foer shows a genuine interest in wanting to know where the animals we consume come from, how they are treated, and is unrelenting in questioning the cultural conditioning that has enabled the horrendous conditions of factory farms to persist without the outcry of the public that would certainly explode if what he reports became common knowledge to a wider audience. Read this, gift it to your friends—I guarantee that it will be a transformative experience that will stay with you for years after you complete the final page.

3. Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy. Imagine my horror when not even halfway through my vacation in December, I realized that the piles of books I had brought along with me were rapidly diminishing. This book came upon me in a moment of desperation, when I found myself face to face with an unexpected book swap, a particularly joyous moment given that I was in a country where it would be challenging to find books written in English. I never could have imagined when I grabbed this book how very entertaining it would be. One of my travel companions caught me laughing out loud on more than one occasion as I was reading this page turner. Fifteen years after the appearance of Bridget Jones, Helen Fielding presents the reader with a 51-year-old Bridget: a recent widower and mother of two back on the dating scene. Her hilariously dysfunctional friends are still around giving their well-meaning but disastrous advice on dating, and Bridget, while conceivably older and wiser, finds herself grappling with online dating, texting, and, quite frankly, is perhaps more older than she is wiser. Laugh out loud funny while not nearly as predictable as the last one, this book is both endearing and does justice to Bridget’s evolution as a very compelling and lovable modern woman. The perfect beach read.

4. The Circle. On many of the “Best of” lists for 2013, David Eggers has created a masterful page turner that quite frankly I could not stop reading. Having started this during my semester, the inevitable showdown between reading or grading papers oftentimes ended with my reading this book. Amazon perhaps gives one of the best descriptions of this compelling and very timely novel:

When Mae Holland takes a job at the Circle, a tech giant with a utopian culture and cult-like following (Eggers didn't call it Schmoogle, but may as well have), she quickly loses sight of her friends, family, and sense of self in favor of professional success and social acceptance. As her Circle star rises, Mae succumbs to the corporate code of full disclosure, eventually agreeing to ‘go transparent’ and let the public watch—and comment on—her every move. ‘Privacy is theft,’ decrees the company motto; ‘Secrets are lies.’ It's not subtle, but neither were Harrison Bergeron and 1984, and in its best moments The Circle is equally terrifying. Let's just hope it's not prescient. (Lipman, Amazon.com Review)

Quite frankly, a must-read in this digital age.

5. The Host. The author of the highly addictive Twilight series enhances her writing chops considerably with her first novel geared towards adults. Okay, so maybe it isn’t exactly literature, but this book was compelling from the first page and kept me invested until the very end. Bringing up weighty themes related to family, love, and what it means to have a soul, this science fiction thriller is surprisingly human with the intensity in which it explores these all too familiar (and human) experiences. Another one that I just couldn’t put down, this book is an epic tale that will keep you entertained, and it's surprisingly grappling with some heavy philosophical questions that you wouldn’t expect to be raised from the author that brought sexy back to vampires. You may just find yourself musing, Bella who? by the time you are in the thick of this compelling escapist piece.

Taylor, E. (2012).Your Brain on Books: 20 Proven Benefits of Being an Avid Reader. Yaminatoday.com: a Literary, Publishing, & Entertainment Blog. Retrieved on January 11, 2014 from: http://www.yaminatoday.com/2012/04/13/your-brain-on-books-20-proven-bene... .

Copyright 2014 Azadeh Aalai