2016 Favorite Books & Posts

Under the tree this year


Several of my favorite books read this year were published in 2016. My top read, a memoir, was first published in Germany in 1938.

You’ll see plenty of memoirs on my list. Almost all the fiction is historical. Two are set in the northern Arctic regions.

Why I Write Memoir was by far my most popular post in 2016.

My Most Unusual & Memorable Read in 2016

A Woman in the Polar Nightby Christiane Ritter (memoir)

Favorite Fiction Read in 2016

To the Bright Edge#1 To the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey

#2 News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

#3 Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien (not yet reviewed on Books Can Save A Life)

#4 My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout 

Favorite Memoirs Read in 2016

#1 Lab Girlby Hope Jahren

#2 Ghostbread, by Sonja Livingston

#3 The Beautiful Struggle, by Ta-Nahesi Coates

#4 H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

Favorite Nonfiction Read in 2016

67 Shots#1 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence, by Howard Means

#2 The Road to Character, by David Brooks (not reviewed on Books Can Save A Life)

Favorite Author New to Me

Sonja Livingston (Ladies Night at the Dreamland; Queen of the Fall; Ghostbread)


#1 Why I Write Memoir

#2 A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, by Sue Klebold (memoir)

Also popular

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi (memoir)

The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion, by Jenny Peterson


Daughters of Madness book cover#1 Meeting the Dark Matter of Mental Illness

#2 Reading Junot Diaz

#3 Do Genes Shape Our Mental Health?

#4 Children of Mental Illness, Part I

What were your favorite books read in 2016, and what is on your list for 2017?

To the Bright Edge of the World

To the Bright Edge

Lieut. Col. Allen Forrester, June 25, 1885:

“Pruitt keeps shouting above the storm–Do you feel that? Can’t you feel that?

What he says makes no sense. He says there are hands on him. Something pulls at him. He says he has to run. I have warned him to stay put.

(undated entry)

My dearest Sophie. I pray you will read this. You are first and last to me.

I do not know if we will survive the night. They are all around us. They scream and cry so that it is hard to think to put these words on the page.

You must know that I love you.

I am not afraid of death but instead of the passage from here to oblivion, of being aware of its coming. I would rather have been run through with a spear than face this long dread.”

Eowyn Ivey’s novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, is truly a standout for me, a cut above the rest.

Many of you know that I’m partial to nature and wilderness stories, especially historical ones. To the Bright Edge of the World reminds me of one of my all-time favorite novels, Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett. The novel and short stories of Anthony Doerr come to mind as well when I read Eowyn Ivey’s writing, which is lyrical and replete with exquisite detail. A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter is another fine book, a memoir, in the same vein.

“I fell in love with this book; it captured both my head and my heart, completely and utterly.” – Jane, Beyond Eden Rock.  — I was browsing on Goodreads and found Jane’s endorsement of To the Bright Edge of the World. Her words spoke to me because they are my sentiments about the novel, too, and I couldn’t have said it better.

I loved Eowyn Ivey’s first novel, The Snow Child, which was selected for If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book in 2014. Like The Snow Child, To the Bright Edge of the World takes place in Ivey’s native Alaska. It’s a great love story, a  wilderness tale of a hero and heroine’s quests infused with magical realism, and a flawlessly researched portrayal of 19th century Alaska.

Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester must lead a dangerous, seemingly impossible expedition through the fictitious Wolverine River Valley deep in the Alaskan wilds of 1885, a journey no one has ever survived. His pregnant wife, Sophie Forrester, stays behind in Vancouver Barracks, destined to have adventures and heartbreaks of her own.

Ivey has cleverly constructed the narrative entirely from letters, journals, diaries, newspaper articles, military reports, photographs, and other documents.

We, the readers, are privy to the contemporary correspondence between Walter Forrester, Allen Forrester’s great nephew, and Joshua Sloan, who is part Native American and curator of the Alpine Historical Museum in Alaska. Walter sends his great uncle’s papers to Joshua in the hopes that he’ll display and archive them for safekeeping. As Joshua makes his way through the journals, diaries, and letters, he and Walter piece together Allen and Sophie’s stories, fill in the gaps, and reflect on their own lives.

As always, Ivey’s descriptions of geography and landscape take us vividly to long-ago Alaska:

“The canyon bound the Wolverine so that when, over the course of the winter, the ice moved, it crumpled violently. Great blocks three feet thick & as much as twenty feet high had been torn asunder & turned sideways. It seemed an impassable range of buckles & ridges & upended slabs of ice pressed up against the canyon walls, which are vertical rock the color of lead.”

Here are Sophie’s words as she undergoes her own dark night of the soul:

Sophie Forrester, Vancouver Barracks, April 26, 1885:

“…it continued its steady and hard rapping, and the sound became more and more horrible…The raven stopped its knocking and cocked an eye toward me.

I then noticed something most peculiar….A bird’s eye ought to be flattened in shape, with a dark iris surrounded by a dark-gray sclera, and entirely unmoving in its socket. Yet this eye was round, with white sclera, and it rotated about in the socket. It looked nothing like a bird’s eye, but rather that of a mammal. More to the point, a human.” 


A raven shape shifts into a trickster who brings Allen and Sophie good fortune and sorrow.

The New York Public Library. (1849). Raven.

Sophie Forrester teaches herself the art of photographing birds. Her descriptions of the technical and creative challenges are beautifully rendered, and inspiring.

The New York Public Library. (1901 – 1914).Horned And Tufted Puffins.


Allen Forrester’s darker mission is to assess tribal threats to US expansion in Alaska, even as native tribes give life-saving aid to Forrester and his men. The author weaves Native American myths into the plot. These fierce stories blur the line between humans, animals and nature. In the end, the hard wisdom of the stories so valued by indigenous people seems far truer than the scientific knowledge possessed by “civilized” people.

The New York Public Library. (1869-04). Indian summer encampment.


Have you read To the Bright Edge of the World or The Snow Child? What did you think? Can you recommend similar historical books about nature, travel, and adventure, fiction or nonfiction? Click on the comments link in the left sidebar and let us know.

What does Tribe (the book and the noun) have to do with family reunions? I’ll be writing about that in my next post…

Reading The Snow Child in a Deep Freeze

frost on window
Frost on our window

It was a bright winter’s day when I took this photograph, but it came out dark, evoking for me the deep winter chill of our snowbound evenings in upstate New York, which are perfect for reading books by the fire.

Before winter’s end, you must read The Snow Child.  Based on a Russian folk tale, The Snow Child suspends readers between fantasy and reality in remote, 1920s Alaska. (One of many English versions of the Russian folk tale is “The Little Daughter of the Snow” in Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales.)

Mabel and Jack, a childless, middle-aged couple, move from Pennsylvania to the Alaskan Territory to homestead on 160 acres of land. For ten years, they’ve been locked in a private world of grief over their stillborn child; Mabel, especially, hopes to escape from and the young families and children in Pennsylvania who remind her of her sadness.

One day, Mabel and Jack build a snow child whom they dress in a red scarf and mittens. The snow child melts, but a little girl with a fox begins to appear in the woods around their cabin. Is she real, or is she an unearthly fairy child born of their own longing? You’ll find yourself seesawing between Jack’s harsh, real-world view of who, exactly, the girl they call Faina is, and Mabel’s wishful, fantastical, mystical one.

For me, The Snow Child (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) was ideal reading: perfect for the time of year, entrancing, deceptively simple storytelling set in a frontier that has fascinated me of late. I kept thinking of the breathtaking world evoked in Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. Lopez writes of virgin land, animals and people at risk from encroaching civilization, and I think of Faina as a metaphor for the wild and untamable.

Faina embodies, for me, my deep-rooted desire to have and love children. Mabel and Jack, through Faina, do find their hearts’ desire but, like all parents, they eventually must let go.

I loved how Mabel finds another kind of fulfillment through her art, and learns to channel grief, insights, and a growing love of the natural world into renderings and sketches.

The Snow Child is our city’s “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book” choice for 2014. The author, Eowyn Ivey, will travel here from her home in Alaska for three days (March 19- 21) of readings and talks at local schools, libraries, and Rochester’s Writers & Books.

We take “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book” very seriously here. We began marking it in January with countless book clubs discussing The Snow Child over tea and hot chocolate; writing workshops and readings by Ken Waldman, an Alaskan poet and fiddler; short, short plays that contain the word “fox” written and performed by locals at Geva Theatre Center; and for kids, making paper snowflakes and readings/discussions of fairy tales from Russia and around the world.

Still to come:  on February 20 a presentation of “Alaskan Odyssey: Cruising the Inside Passage and Beyond”; on February 28 an exhibition of winter images at Image City Photography Gallery; on March 4 a demonstration of basket weaving in the Alaskan tribal pattern; and a Snow Day party with music, fruit pies in flavors inspired by the novel, and a scavenger hunt on March 7.

On March 8 a how-to-survive-in-the-snow adventure at Mendon Ponds Park sponsored by the local Sierra Club chapter will explore whether or not a little girl could survive in the winter wilderness. Also on March 8 there will be an Afternoon of Winter Fancies: Creative Movement Workshops and Flights of Winter Fancy at the Hochstein School of Music & Dance; and on March 18 – 19 an exhibition of quilts inspired by The Snow Child, sponsored by the Genesee Valley Quilt ClubEach quilt will be a “novel” and feature the artist’s love of quilting and reading.

On March 4, Rick French of Pack, Paddle, Ski, who has been to just about every country in the world, will host a Sleeping in Ice class at the Penfield Public Library. (Rick has spent many nights sleeping in igloos and snow shelters; my husband travelled to Alaska with him, but that’s another story.) Rick will demonstrate how to make an igloo in the backyard and how to survive a surprise blizzard in the mountains.

For those of you who are local, you can find a complete schedule of Snow Child events here.

Snow Maiden in forest
Snow Maiden, Viktor M. Vasnetsov

The Snow Child book cover