09 December 2014

Until the Very End



     The year is almost over and I have to read eighteen books to reach my goal of one hundred fifty books. Up until the dead end of November my goal for 2014 had been two hundred books. (It takes me a very long time to give up, but eventually reality kicked in) I think that shouldn’t be a problem, but just for kicks I’m going to list the eighteen, plus one (for my online book club) that I’m going to attempt to finish before the end of the year.
     Also, my sister challenged me to a reading contest for the month of December so this post is also partially for them to size up the competition.


  • Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver – I’ve historically really appreciated everything I’ve read by Kingsolver despite some issues I have with her works. So, I’m looking forward to this one.
  • The Most Famous Man in America by Debby Applegate – It’s the biography of Henry Ward Beecher that I’ve been working on for what seems like YEARS
  • I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley – Book four in a series about a precocious little girl who is a brilliant chemist AND a crime solver. So great. So. Great.
  • Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith – Book two in a series about a woman detective in Botswana. The stories are much more about the personality of the detective and her neighbors than the mysteries themselves. I really enjoy them
  • A Godward Life by John Piper – A collection of little talks from John Piper is the best way I can describe this. I haven’t gotten very far in it yet.
  • Tuck by Stephen Lawhead – Book number three in a series about Robin Hood. Recommended by my friend, Libby.
  • Rule Britannia by Daphne DuMaurier – I haven’t started it, but it’s DuMaurier so…yay!
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott – Raise your hand if you are a reader who hasn’t always secretly wanted to be a writer…thought so!
  • The Excellent Wife by Martha Peace – Love it or hate it many people have a very strong opinion on this book. I’m excited to read it.
  • Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O’Neill – A play I haven’t read. I’m trying to read more plays
  • On Reading the Grapes of Wrath by Susan Shillinglaw – I got this book for free at a history conference. I loved Grapes of Wrath so I’m excited to be told about how important historically the book is.
  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – I actually saw a talk by this guy. Sadly at the time I didn’t have the book so I couldn’t ask him to sign it, but I’m excited to read it now because it’s one of those books you always hear about.
  • The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky – Does this NEED any explanation?
  • The New American Poetry edited by Donald Allen – I haven’t been reading enough poetry. It’s pretty sad.
  • The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan – I like the cover of this book. That’s the only reason I got it from the library
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry – After reading Number theStars I wanted to read more of this author.

Well, that’s it. December. I hope I meet my goals.

04 December 2014

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry



     Joy of joys! I may have found a book club. I sort of weaseled my way into the group on Monday night and I think I’m going to be a member. I can barely contain my excitement. Anyway, they are reading Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry and I read it as quickly as I could to catch up. Let’s revisit that “quickly as I could” bit. I warn everyone even considering reading it that this book is a tear jerker, but not in that over the top emotionally manipulative way, in like the quiet sadness that is super beautiful kind of way. I actually had to put it down a few times and read something else because it was too emotional.
     Despite all that I loved it! It was a novel written by a poet which is entirely different than a poem written by a novelist, by the way. There were quite a few chunks of the novel that I felt could be extracted and still be a great poem. There were sentences you had to read over again not necessarily because it took another go to understand (though there was that too), but just to taste the beauty of words and feel the emotions again.
     The novel itself reads much the same as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.  Hannah Coulter is a now eighty year old woman looking back on her life. The story is somewhat told to her nephew who apparently is considered the most like Wendell Berry himself, but is mainly her own reminiscences to herself now that her husband is gone.
     Hannah Coulter is a story of loss. This loss could come from death but also comes from eras changing, from children growing up, from people moving away, and from war. The beauty of it is that throughout this story of loss there is, in Hannah’s words, “gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.” These gold threads of light in the darkness of loss are love and thankfulness. “Love is what carries you,” Hannah says, “for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark.” As Hannah recalls how full of loss her life is she doesn’t grumble or complain. She somehow tells a heartbreaking story and manages to concentrate on the blessings and the love that she has had.
     What I particularly loved were the amazing Christian themes in the book evoked by blatant biblical phrasing. Hannah and her husband refer to their community as “the membership.” And the Coulter’s neighbors truly embraced the spirit of unity. The way Hannah described it sounds similar to the way the church ought to be.  The concept of Love in the book seemed very Christian as well. As Christians we know the real Love that is always there, even in the dark. We know it is God’s love. And we know that God supplies us with things to be happy about. They maybe aren’t the things we think we want, but they are other kindnesses and we should thank him for those. In almost the middle of the book there is an account of one of the members of Hannah’s “membership” playing the hymn “Abide With Me” (my actual favorite hymn) which is basically about God being with us whatever is happening around us.
     The book is so moving. I cannot say enough times how wonderful it was. Wendell Berry actually wrote a couple of books and a few short stories about this community from the perspectives of different members. I want to read them all now. I think this might go down as one of the best books I read in 2014. 

29 September 2014

The Princess and The Goblin by George MacDonald



     I have to admit, when I read The Princess and the Goblin I read it way too fast. My usual M.O. is getting the book at the end of the month and at the very last minute I manage to write up something, so I thought I would get a head start. So, unfortunately I read it too fast. It didn’t help that the reading was much easier since it was a children’s book.  And for whatever reason I have a really hard time writing reviews of children’s books. This is bad news because November is a children’s book, and I’m leading it. Anyway, this review was hard to write! And it's like...three paragraphs, and only one has anything worthwhile that I added to the conversation. So, if you'd like, you could just go straight to the penultimate paragraph and read that.

Reading to Know - Book Club

     The Princess and the Goblin is the story of Princess Irene who lives with her nursemaid apart from her father, the King because he has to travel a lot. Underneath their city in caves live hordes of evil goblins plotting something against the kingdom. One day, Irene is unable to go outside because of rain and she discovers a mysterious staircase and eventually her mysterious grandmother, also named Irene. Eventually the grandmother gives Princess Irene a thread that will always bring Irene back to her grandmother no matter where she is. Princess Irene later meets with the son of a miner, Curdie Peterson who knows how to keep the goblins at bay and eventually learns the secret of how to defeat them.  Irene and Curdie eventually must use their skills to keep each other and the kingdom safe.

     One of the particular themes I picked up on which I felt was important was a theme of trust. In order to escape the goblins, Irene has to follow the thread her grandmother gave her even when it seems to take her in a direction that she doesn’t understand. This is basically what we have to do with how the Lord leads us. Sometimes we think God is directing our lives in a way that seems confusing and often terrifying. But we still have to follow him in trust.

     Also, I kind of like that Princess Irene saved Curdie, but not in an in-your-face feminist sort of way. It was just normal. She just saved him. That’s all. Just kind of thought it was cool.

28 August 2014

What's On My Nightstand for September


Ok, yes, I realize it was Tuesday two days ago. However, I've been rushing to finish Agnes Gray and The Brothers Karamazov (which I did! Hooray) and I forgot that What's on My Nightstand Day hosted by 5 Minutes For Books was passing me by.

What's On Your
Nightstand

I love how honest this thing keeps me....

  • Idols of the Heart by Elyse Fitzpatrick: This was the book the ladies at my new church all read together. They were finishing their discussion on the day I first came to women's group. Woops. Anyway, it sounded good and I thought I should read it. Especially since it talks quite about my old friend, worry. Sigh Sometimes I need a good shaking up.
  • The New American Poetry by Donald Merriam Allen: Allen is actually the guy who compiled the poems. He's not the poet. It's a compilation of a lot of poets. So far, I've liked one, but I'm not very far into it. I'm somewhat trying to read one Christian living book and one poetry book a month. When I tell you that Idols of the Heart is my April Christian living book and The New American Poetry is my April poetry book, you'll understand how well I'm doing with that.
  • Saints and Villains: A Novel by Denise Giardina: Uhm, this is a novel...about Bonhoeffer. I've talked before about how awkward it is to write about a real person, but at the very least it makes me want to research Bonhoeffer and figure out how much of all this is true. I brought this book on the honeymoon with me. (No judgies!) So, what with the glorious wedding and the perfect honeymoon, I didn't get much of it read. Also, it's just not that interesting of a book, so I'm still slogging.
  • Lilith by George MacDonald: I'm actually listening to this one with Husband. What can I say about this book. It's...insane. I don't even know how to explain how crazy this book is. The only explanation I have is that it is sort of a defense of MacDonald's universalism, or at least his lack of belief in hell. Hell is basically just being stuck in this crazy creepy “other world” and getting things figured out before you're ready to enter heaven. Or something. I don't know. I wouldn't recommend it.
  • The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate: It's a biography...in case you didn't pick that up. I technically, haven't even taken this out of my bookshelf in order to put it ON my nightstand, but it is the next “history” book. I've just been too scared to start it. I'm hoping this post will be the push I need.

27 August 2014

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky


      This was my second reading of The Brothers Karamazov and this time around I was even more moved than the first. And that is saying something because I gave it five whole stars on Goodreads. If I could have given six this time, I would have. 

Reading to Know - Book Club

      The Brothers Karamazov is the story of three brothers (and a potential illegitimate fourth?) and the murder of their father. The father is a licentious tyrant who has no love for his children. One night he is killed in his own home presumably by the hand of his eldest son Dimitry, who is competing with his own father for the hand of a woman they both are interested in. The story follows each brother in the complexities of their lives, while they witness the trial of their older brother. But like any good Dostoevsky story, the characters serve as backdrops for the philosophy under discussion. This is not to say that Dostoevsky's characters are in any way stock characters. They are beautifully drawn and complex people you can believe in, but their main purpose is to discuss faith.

      The Brothers Karamazov is ultimately a story of the tensions of belief and unbelief. The youngest brother, Alyosha (who for a time was planning on being a monk and was under the tutelage of a mysterious character, Elder Zosima) represents belief, while the troubled middle brother, Ivan represents atheism. The whole novel deals with the statement, “If there is no God than everything is permitted.” To clarify for the hairsplitters of the world, those words, in that order, do not actually appear in the novel, but that statement definitely sums up the thrust of the whole novel. I'm trying to not spoil the end for everyone, but when we finally find out who the murderer is, he says as justification, “I did it all simply because 'everything is permitted.'”

      Though Dostoevsky himself calls Alyosha his protagonist, I would say possibly the most interesting, or at least most tragic, figure is Ivan. Ivan, as an atheist, understands that without God everything is permitted, yet he still wrestles with a God who will not leave him alone. He's a thoughtful man, and realizes that it's the world cannot be quite that simple. Through his avowed atheism, he keeps encountering his own conscience. We have here a perfectly illustrated tortured man whose own worldview says that everything is permitted yet who cannot let the idea of God go completely. Even at the end of the novel nothing has settled for him. He has not found peace. 
 
      I cannot leave the discussion of Ivan without talking about The Grand Inquisitor which has often been misinterpreted, but always seen as the chapter upon which this novel turns. The chapter is written by Ivan and it is about Jesus coming to earth during the time of the Inquisition. The Inquisitor (representing the church) takes Jesus aside and chastises him for giving people too much freedom. People need to feel secure rather than free, he argues and it's Jesus's fault that the church had to take over when he gave them too much freedom. You see, though Dostoevsky portrays Ivan as a man troubled by his own philosophy, he also has a 'no holds barred' approach to the challenges facing believers. If this was merely a story of belief, Dostoevsky could have chosen to have Ivan slowly open up to the possibility of God and eventually find peace, but he also brings up many issues that have always been hard for Christians to deal with, like, “Why would God allow cruelty to children?” and “What shall we do with our Christian freedom?” In a move that has baffled the literary world Jesus's only response is to kiss the Grand Inquisitor and walk away. Here is my humble take on that: Jesus forgives. Even in the face of scorn and rage against Him, He still forgives. I recognize it is a tad bit more complicated than that, but ultimately Christ forgives. Also, on a more human level that is about all we can do as believers. In the face of so much hurt the only response is to love the hurting. We can't reason people out of things sometimes. Sometimes they just need a kiss. Or a hug, if you are more Western minded...like me.

      The tragedy of the story is that the kiss burns for a little while in the heart of the Grand Inquisitor, but he never turns from his “old idea.” In the same way Ivan has been touched by Alyosha and by Christ himself, but as far as we can tell, never turns from his “old idea.” 
 
      Ok, now I can probably go on for far longer than you have patience to read, but I would like to bring up Elder Zosima, just because I have a personal axe to grind. As far as I can tell, he's some bigwig in the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian Orthodoxy is far beyond me, so I'm not even going to try. However, we are led to believe he is a sincere and holy man who loves God and who loves his fellow men. These are the greatest commandments.
 
      Well, very soon into the book, he dies. Now, because this is a more mystical religion than I am used to, there is some belief among the villagers that not only will there be miracles after his death, but there will be no rotting of the body. Well, oddly enough, like any dead body, after some time, he begins to stink. Suddenly aspersions are cast on the man's character and Alyosha himself comes very near to losing his faith over this. There are many amazing things I could praise Dostoevsky on regarding this incident and the effect it has on Alyosha, but I really just want to talk about something personal. I feel like there is a bit of a “where there's smoke; there's fire,” attitude about people. Often just because a rumor begins about someone (a stink, if you will), everything they've ever done no longer matters. They could be the kindest and friendliest people, but the instant something bad is said about them, everyone believes the bad. As believers, we should let people's lives speak for themselves, and maybe we shouldn't believe everything we hear. Anyway, that's my little moral that I thought of while reading this book.
 
      As I said, I could probably keep going, but smarter people than me have written whole treatises on this book, so all I can say is THANK YOU Shonya at Learning How Much I Don't Know. for giving me this opportunity to read The Brothers Karamazov again. I hope everyone was able to pull all the amazing greatness that they could out of this book.