31 October 2015

Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

This month the Reading to Know bookclub’s choice was The Hound of the Baskervilles. It was picked by Sky. I was glad to read along because I remember really disliking Sherlock Holmes when I was younger and I haven’t picked up a book about him in years. I was interested to find out what adult me thought about teenaged me’s opinions.

Reading to Know - Book Club

     As it turns out teenaged me was 100% correct. Sherlock Holmes is terrible. His poor friend Watson seems to exist merely for Holmes to project how incredibly smart he is compared to Watson. He just seemed annoyingly impressed with himself, and even though he is supposed to be very observant and intelligent I didn’t feel like it was an excuse to act like that. I was wrong however, in the story itself. I was actually pulled in right from the start and despite my aversion to the main character I found the plot interesting and even though I had a general idea (thanks Wishbone!) of how it ended, I was very engaged the entire way through.
     After the mysterious and possibly supernatural death of Sir Charles Baskerville, Sherlock Holmes is asked to look into the matter before the arrival of Sir Charles’s nephew. There is an old family legend that a supernatural Hound of Hell haunts the family because of a wicked ancestor and it is believed that the hound was the reason Sir Charles died. Holmes sends the ever ready Watson with Sir Charles’s nephew and asks him to report everything that happens. There are mysterious love interests, a bog that swallows unwitting travelers and an escaped convict. It’s all very thrilling and a quick and entertaining read.
     I am very glad I returned to it, but I don’t think Holmes will ever go down as my favorite literary character or anything. I will however, read more of the Holmes stories. As an interesting aside, I have found a series of books featuring Sherlock Holmes. The first book is set in WWI and Holmes has partnered with a fifteen year old girl to help solve crimes. I just started it so I’m not sure if it’s a terrible idea or a great one. 

(Update) After reading the other posts on this book I realize that everyone has already discovered the later Holmes stories beginning with The Beekeeper's Apprentice. And apparently they are really good. So, I'm glad I was able to start the first one.

01 October 2015

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

                Every once in a while a book comes along that is so convicting I actually have to stop while reading it and pray. Every time I read The Screwtape Letters this is the experience I have.

 Reading to Know - Book Club
                The Screwtape Letters is an epistolary novel documenting the fictional correspondence of a senior demon to his nephew, telling the nephew how best to tempt his patient (a new believer) away from The Enemy (God) and toward Our Father Below (Satan). You actually only read the letters from the elder demon, Screwtape, but you are given some sense of what the younger demon is writing since Screwtape answers some of his questions.
                First of all, that is just clever. Who would think to use demons to demonstrate the pitfalls sinners will encounter on earth? In some instances, the reader is terrified by how accurate the temptations are, but there are actually some pretty humorous parts of the letters as well. Lewis opens the book with a preface explaining that when speaking of demons one can dismiss them altogether or be too fascinated with them. I think this book is the perfect blend of seriousness over sin and temptation mixed with a little mockery of the demons themselves. Over the whole book there is a constant repetition of the Love of God for mankind. The demons find this disgusting, but Lewis cleverly and continually introduces this theme. The result is convicting and beautiful.
                This time I went through the book with highlighter in hand and I found myself just highlighting huge paragraphs because everything with perfect. I’m sure everyone has very clever things to say about this book so I’m just going to share some passages that hit me. I’ll limit myself to three really good ones.
                “You are much more likely to make your man a sound drunkard by pressing drink on him as an anodyne hen he is dull and weary than by encouraging him to use it as a means of merriment among his friends when he is happy and expansive. Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours.” Wow! Isn’t that awesome? Sometimes I just don’t think about how God is a God of pleasure. Sometimes I tend to think of pleasures as vaguely unspiritual. What a great way of looking at life! Later Screwtape talks about how even the reading of a good book can reinvigorate the spiritual life of a believer. Can you see why I love this book?
                Screwtape suggests his nephew tempt his patient by using the aspect of humor called flippancy. “Flippancy is best of all…any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the enemy that I know.” Now, even if you aren’t one to be flippant about serious things, have you ever been part of a conversation where everyone else is being flippant and you don’t want to be the kill joy with “no sense of humor.” I know I for sure have and have probably been tempted to just go along with what everyone else is saying. That definitely gave me something to think about. Earlier in the book Screwtape mentions how the word “Puritanical” (I think…or maybe it was just puritan) has been one of their greatest triumphs. I would maybe add the word “judgmental” or “legalistic.” Somehow just being serious about sin makes you instantly “judgmental.” Such a great reminder to be on the lookout for little cracks in our defenses where the devil finds a way in!
                Eventually the patient suffers his first waning of religious feeling after his conversion. He is still going to church, which Screwtape thinks is good since he still considers himself a Christian since he retains the habits of one. “While he thinks that, we do not have to contend with the explicit repentance of a definite, fully recognized sin, but only with the vague, though uneasy, feeling that he hasn’t been doing very well lately.” This is where I paused and though, “oh no, this is about to be very convicting.” Further down the page Screwtape goes on to say, “If such a feeling is allowed to live but not allowed to become irresistible and flower into real repentance, it has one invaluable tendency. It increases the patient’s reluctance to think about the Enemy. All humans at nearly all times have some such reluctance; but when thinking of Him involves facing and intensifying a whole vague cloud of half-conscious guilt, this reluctance is increased tenfold.” Uhm, yes, I have felt like that.
                Those are just three of dozens that I had highlighted. If you haven’t read this book yet, please read it. Aside from a galvanization of my prayer life, I experienced an intense desire to read more Lewis. I think two years ago, I made a New Year’s Resolution to read all his books. I never did that, but I did read quite a few. I now want to read even more of them. Thanks, Barbara from StrayThoughts and thanks Carrie from Reading to Know for giving us a great recommendation and a forum for what I am sure will be a great conversation.

23 September 2015

All The Light We Cannot See Between Two Oceans by Anthony Doerr or M.L. Stedman

So, I have been confusing this book

With this book

     Can you blame me? They both have light in the title. They both have buildings on the cover. They both were getting pretty good reviews. And they both are blue-ish. Even more confusing both books deal with World Wars. Just not the same ones.

     The Light Between Two Oceans is about an Austrailian man living in the aftermath of World War I and struggling with his own demons by retreating to be a lighthouse keeper. His life changes when he brings a wife to the lighthouse, and when a baby appears mysteriously he is forced to make some tough decisions. I liked this one a lot. I don’t think much of Austrailia in either of the wars though I know they were a big deal during the siege of Constantinople, and honestly the book didn’t dig too deep into the history of Anzac Day or Austrailia’s part in WWI. It was mainly a love story, and a very good one. I also loved how the book showed how much lies can destroy and once a lie is told it can only compound and become more and more complex and destructive. 

     All The Light We Cannot See  is a story about a young German boy and a young French girl whose paths converge during World War II. The boy is Werner Pfennig, a young German conscripted into the German army because of his natural intelligence with engineering, particularly the ability to track radio activity. The other is a blind French girl, Marie Laure. Her father worked at a museum harboring a diamond believed to protect the one who carried it at the cost of all around him. When the Germans invade, copies of the diamond are made and sent with each museum worker as they escape the city. Marie Laure and her father go to her great uncle’s house to wait out the occupation. While there Marie-Laure meets Werner in a convergence of a lot of things. I’m trying to be guarded because as emotionally hard to read as this book is, I think it is a great book. The writing is a lot more lyrical than a lot of people are going to get behind, but I love that kind of thing to begin with. But the story is surprisingly easy to read and very interesting.

     So, these books aren’t very much like each other, but they were both pretty good, and I believe I ended up giving both five stars on Goodreads.I plan on reading other books by Anthony Doerr for sure and if M.L. Stedman comes out with another I would be willing to try that one too.

08 May 2015

1984 by George Orwell

     It is a common misconception among my friends that 1984 by George Orwell is my favorite book. Mainly because I find myself in the throes of excitement saying something like, “1984 is my FAVORITE book!” You can see how confused they would be. Though there is a major soft spot in my heart for dystopian literature, it’s probably not true that it is my favorite book since, as anyone knows who has read it in the past or read along with it as part of the Reading to Know Book Club, it is not a very pleasant book to read. In some places it’s actually downright unpleasant. I have a constantly changing top ten books or so and 1984 is in there, but probably the book that holds the number one spot fairly consistently is David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. However, 1984 is the book that changed my life, and potentially found me a husband. That last part is questionable, but I’m willing to run with it. 

Reading to Know - Book Club

     1984 was written in the aftermath of World War II and when the Soviet Union was in its heyday. It is a partial warning against state tyranny and a partial story of a revolution betraying its adherents. Eric Blair, the real George Orwell, was a democratic socialist with a strong revulsion to totalitarian government. Both 1984 and his other novel Animal Farm: A Fairy Story share the theme of the revolution betrayed by tyranny. Now, I’m actually a little confused by Blair I have to say, because he agreed with a revolution from below (socialism) but not one from above (totalitarianism) yet in both of his novels the revolution from below eventually becomes totalitarian anyway. I guess he believed that if one walked carefully and if everyone did their part we could prevent socialism from devolving. I would probably argue that in all cases history has seen this really hasn’t happened. You end up with a Stalin, or a Mao, or a Big Brother.
     As a cautionary tale though, 1984 certainly works. It’s the story of Winston Smith who still clings to truth and memory and hopes that one day Big Brother will be overthrown. Throughout the book we learn the futility of one man against a set system. The takeaway is not to let the world get like Winston’s world because by that point it’s too late.
     This time around I found two parts particularly chilling. The first is when Winston mentioned how “Owntime” was perceived as weird and revolutionary. Everyone was expected to share their lives and always be around others. Facebook anyone? Also, not to mention, how exhausting would that be to never have time alone? The second is the part of 1984 that always makes me cry. When Winston looks at himself in the mirror after spending some uh, quality time in the Ministry of Love building and weeps over his dehumanization. I guess it’s not chilling so much as just horribly sad.
     I also think it's scary how quickly Winston's comrades swallow everything. They even forget an announcement from the day before that their rations were being lowered and rejoice when they are told that Big Brother has actually procured them more rations. They have completely forgotten the previous day's announcements. Even the proles who are relatively free are mainly wrapped up in day-to-day things and distractions like the lottery. I find myself a little like this to be honest. I have gone weeks and weeks without knowing anything that is happening in the world. The news usually makes me a little depressed and I have plenty of things at home that need taking care of. But I don't know if this self-inflicted ignorance is actually very good. In fact, re-reading 1984 makes me want to be more aware than ever.
     The lack of truth or the willingness to change truth is also shocking. Truth is whatever Big Brother and the Party say is true. If they say 2+2=5 then one is to believe them. This is something that has gone on since Adam and Eve right? "Did God really say?" The enemy has always wanted to distort the truth. There is a lot of pressure on Christians to compromise on what is true, and while it is disappointing to see the ones who do cave to the pressure, it is encouraging to see the ones who believe in Truth. 1984 though not written by a Christian, is written by someone who has been given common grace. The book is a call to not let Truth go or even let it slip into compromise.  
     There is some amount of speculation that 1984 was originally going to be called 1948 but Orwell’s publishers thought that was going to be a little too pointed. Regardless I think the Soviet Union understood Orwell’s accusations enough to ban it from 1950 to 1990. Orwell also was influenced by the Tehran Conference when he wrote about the world being divided into Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. It is also believed that 1984 was inspired by another dystopian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin called We. I read it a few years ago and I could see the influences, but it is not nearly as approachable as 1984.
     In my Sophomore year of college I was taking quite a few English classes and learning I was much more knowledgeable in English than I was ever going to be in history. I even switched my major to English for a semester, but then I read 1984 and suddenly I realized the importance of truth and memory and what better way to preserve both those things than to have a solid knowledge of the past. So, I returned to history where I did not do nearly as well, but I did end up studying a few times with the man who later became my husband. Thanks George Orwell!
      So, even though we’re over a week into May I’m still going to post this. I’m so happy that Reading to Know hosted this book as part of the book club. And thank you Annette for picking it. Also, kudos to Carrie for pointing out that as much as we may sympathize with Winston, he is still in an adulterous relationship. Sometimes I can get so caught up in the story I forget to take a step back and say, "That's not ok." I'm very glad to have had that in my head this time around. I mean, I don't think anyone every really has much sympathy with Julia "rebel-from-the-waist-downwards" Dixon (her last name is never given in the book, but a later movie gave her that name), but I do remember the last time I read it I found myself interested much more in their romance, because mine was happening at the same time. So, it's good to have some reminders of the Truth.
     Also, fun personal  fact: Husband and I will frequently refer to things as doubleplusungood if we don’t like something.Another fun personal fact: I have actually made up a tune for "Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree."I'm humming it right now.

06 April 2015

Divergent by Veronica Roth

     We can all agree that teen romance is stupid, right? I mean, I figure if you disagree with this you wouldn’t be reading my blog anyway. So, I feel like I can just say we all agree that teen romance is dumb and should go away, forever.
     Now that I have that out of the way, I need to say I read the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. In fact, I read it a week or two ago and I’ve been thinking about what to say in this post ever since. The thing is, it was really really good. I am loathe to say it but I think it might have been even better than The Hunger Games. There were some real Christian themes and very good discussion topics.
     That being said, this is an adult book. The romance is waaaay too erotic for kids. In fact, it’s too much for teens. I’d wait until you know for sure your teen is a serious Christian and very mature (think 17 and up) and then give it to them. Now, I don’t really know because I’m not a mom, but that would be my guess. This is actually the only bad thing about this book. It makes me doubly angry because the rest of the book is so good, if the romance wasn’t so erotic it would have been perfect. Though there are no actual descriptions of sex happening and though one could read the book and never know if the characters had sex it got close enough that I didn’t care for it. The romance is also between teenagers which (as aforementioned) we all think is stupid. So, this is actually going to be the last thing I’ll say about it.
     So, I dislike giving too much away which is why I often shy away from the description of the book, but it’s a dystopian series (my favorite!) set in a future where humanity has wiped out more than half of itself. In order to ensure that this doesn’t happen again society has split into five factions, each cultivating a different virtue. Beatrice, the protagonist is a sixteen year old girl raised in the faction called Abnegation. They cultivate selflessness, but Beatrice knows her own selfish heart and thinks she won’t be able to fit into her family’s faction. (This all happens in the first few chapters, if not the very first one so I don’t think I’m giving too much plot away) Later on in the book and for the rest of the series the reader watches as man’s attempt to better himself ultimately fails.
     The series isn’t a Christian series, but the themes are striking. I find it lovely that a believer can write redemptive literature without explicitly saying, “And then Beatrice accepted Jesus into her heart and everything turned out better after that.” This is a book that can appeal to believers and unbelievers, but believers will naturally pick up on certain aspects.
     Ok, I said I wasn’t going to mention the romance again, but I realize that I have to. One of the big themes of the book is forgiveness. And it is most blatant in the relationship between the two main characters. If you can for a moment pretend they aren’t kids, the romance is actually quite mature. They don’t stay starry-eyed about each other all the way through the series. I was particularly blown away by this quote, “I fell in love with him. But I don't just stay with him by default as if there's no one else available to me. I stay with him because I choose to, every day that I wake up, every day that we fight or lie to each other or disappoint each other. I choose him over and over again, and he chooses me.” What a great description of marriage. Love is not a free-fall or a lack of control, love is a choice you make every day. The same applies to family relationships. There are some broken familial ties and though not all of them get fixed (yet another realistic aspect of life. We don’t always get all the loose ends tied up this side of heaven) the forgiveness shown is remarkable.
     The theme of sacrifice also is strong in the books. People die in this series. Everything from suicide to murder to laying your life down for your friends is explored. Each death is treated with respect and thought. Not all of these deaths are sacrificial, but some are. There is quite a bit of a discussion of what is worth dying for and I think Ms. Roth and her protagonist display a great deal of maturity in the right way to look at death and particularly in sacrificing yourself for others. As believers we know the power of a death to save others (I am posting this the day after Easter so this should all be fresh in your minds), and I think Ms. Roth wants us to think of Christ when we read these books. The sacrificing isn’t always one’s life, however. Beatrice is raised in the faction that values self-sacrifice above all things. Beatrice never ends up despising where she comes from. She actually sees the sacrificial life as beautiful and brave in its own way. She just is all too aware of her own selfish heart to feel that she can fit in there.
     The biggest theme though not necessarily the one I picked up on until I read reviews from other people is the topic of original sin. The entirety of the series revolves around whether or not men can fix original sin, either by cultivating specific virtues or by genetic modification. Each faction takes a virtue they claim can fix a broken world and ends up distorting that virtue. Bravery becomes cruelty and unnecessary risks. Truth becomes harsh and insensitive treatment of others. Knowledge becomes pride. Ultimately men cannot fix themselves. Total depravity.
     I have one last thing to say about the book that is going to be a little cryptic if you haven’t read the books, but it is my own personal axe to grind. I think the ending of the series was heart-wrenchingly beautiful. I didn’t cry, but I thought it was genius, and I’ll never understand the negative backlash about it. Ever. Selah. Now, everyone go read it!
     In conclusion there is a website called EpicReads and the author of said website apparently falls victim to the same problem I have. I want to eat what my characters are eating. I actually made an orange saffron cake for Easter this year because I was reading Susan Cooper's Over Sea, Under Stone and the characters had a saffron cake. Anyway, in the Divergent series a certain cake is mentioned a few times and really it’s not explained at all, but here is a recipe put together anyway by the fans of the series. I kind of want to give it a shot.

Great quote that all Christians can rally behind:  “You don’t believe things because they make your life better, you believe them because they’re true.”