Saturday, August 12, 2017

Review: One More Wish

Book: One More Wish by Robin Jones Gunn
Prompt: Read a book you loved... read it again!
Pages: 266

It's no secret that Robin Jones Gunn is one of my favorite authors.  I own nearly everything she's written, and I don't think she's ever written a book I don't love.  She even inspired the name of this blog!  (See the sidebar for more information).  Her books are endlessly quotable, and though One More Wish isn't my absolute favorite book of hers (don't get me wrong, I love it - but that honor belongs to Love Finds You at Sunset Beach, Hawaii) I still found so much wisdom in it.

In One More Wish, Gunn's longtime heroine Christy finds herself waiting on God's timing and learning what it means to be of service to others.  As John Milton is quoted as saying in the book, "They also serve who only stand and wait."  As Christy opens her home to her friends, it stretches her patience and her hospitality to the limits until she discovers that to serve others, you need to have time and space to recharge, particularly if you are an introvert.  As she wishes and hopes for a long-awaited blessing, she learns that God's timing is perfect, and that his blessings are worth waiting for.

In a discussion about wishing and hoping, Christy's friend Sierra tells her:
I think of it like this.  A wish is like the childhood stage of a dream.  It's the most innocent, elementary version of a possibility.  It's fragile, like a dandelion in a breeze... Hope is different.  Hope is a wish that goes to high school... Faith grows out of that adolescent hope, which is such a roller coaster.  And that's why I think it's a good thing to pray and keep praying.  To wish and keep wishing.  Because God answers prayers in His way and in His timing.  The worst thing we can do is to stop praying or dreaming and wishing.  We have to start there, with all our childlike, whimsical thoughts.  Because I think that every prayer of mine that God ever answered first started out as a wish that grew into a hope and graduated to become faith. (selections from p. 194 - 196)
See what I mean?! Endlessly quotable!  As someone who has done a lot of wishing and hoping and praying over the years, I find the connection between the three comforting.  When you've wished and hoped and prayed for things for years, like Hannah in 1 Samuel, who is referenced in One More Wish, it can be easy to doubt God's goodness when it doesn't happen.  But as we see in the story of Hannah, God often gives more extravagantly than we expect.  Hannah asked for one child and God gave her six!

Please don't misunderstand me - God doesn't always give us what we ask for.  But he always gives us what we need when we need it.  He doesn't delight in torturing us while we wait, but rather teaches us to recognize the beauty of waiting.  When we have to wait for something, we often value it more highly than if we are immediately given it.

That is the lesson that Christy learns in One More Wish, among others.  The beauty of Robin's novels is that they are very much novels about everyday life.  And that is what makes them relatable.  Unlike certain other authors that shall not be named (you know who you are!), they don't rely on hard-to-believe coincidences and out-of-the-ordinary plot twists.  Rather, their "ordinariness" (that's not a bad thing!) is what makes them so special, and what makes them so applicable to your life and mine.

Final Recommendation: Read it!  Read it and everything else Robin has written.  I think they'll be as much of a blessing to you and your life as they have been to me and mine.  I can't even begin to tell you how much these books have impacted my life.  They - and their author - are phenomenal.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Review: Anna Karenina

Book: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (my copy translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)
Prompt: Read a book that your friend loves
Pages: 817

I'll admit - reading this book took a lot out of me.  For someone who normally enjoys reading, and who reads a lot, this book took a lot of time to read.  A lot.  As in the better part of a year.  It's 817 pages full of Russian culture, politics, and social maneuvering.

I generally prefer books that move along at a clip.  So when I had to read a chapter entirely about a horse race, or five (!) chapters about a local Russian election, it drove me up a wall.  I admit to telling a coworker that I wanted to take those five chapters on Russian politics and shove them down Tolstoy's throat until he choked on them.

But in all seriousness, Anna Karenina is the story of the eponymous bored aristocratic wife and mother and her fall from grace after she embarks on an affair with the dashing cavalry officer Count Alexei Vronsky.  Tolstoy deftly paints a thorough picture of 19th century Russia.  And, I'll admit, I could picture the characters and the setting despite knowing very little about Russia in general, much less 19th century Russia.

To be honest, I get why the book is named after Anna, but I really felt like Kitty (Anna's sister-in-law's sister) and Levin (Anna's brother's friend) were the real heroine and hero of the book.  I found much more to emulate in their characters than in Anna's or Vronsky's.  And it makes sense - Levin is modeled after Tolstoy himself, so it is natural that Tolstoy would paint himself in the most sympathetic light.  Characters like Anna, Vronsky, and Stiva (Anna's brother) are clearly characters Tolstoy encourages people not to emulate.

But even if Tolstoy rebukes Anna's actions, he still encourages the reader to have sympathy for her.  She's in kind of an impossible situation (even if it is one of her own making) and cannot get out of it.  And it doesn't help that the hypocritical society shuns her while still accepting people like Stiva, who engages in some of the same behaviors as Anna, though not to the same extent.  Granted, Stiva doesn't run away from his spouse as Anna does, but he clearly treats Dolly, his wife, just as badly - if not worse - than Anna treats Karenin, her husband.  But Stiva faces no ill consequences from society - in fact, he is rewarded for it in some ways.  Further, Vronsky is still accepted in society while Anna is not, ostensibly because he was not married before taking up with Anna.  Call it chauvinism, hypocrisy, whatever you will.  But Tolstoy makes clear that society sometimes serves as judge, jury, and executioner against people who are deserving of compassion, not ostracism.  Perhaps if Anna had been shown more compassion - by Vronsky, by her husband, by society, by so-called "friends", she wouldn't have ended up as she did.  Her actions are inexcusable.  But you can still show grace, even if you don't condone the actions.

Final recommendation: If you have the determination (and the time) to read 800 pages of 19th century Russia, do it.  It's an interesting read, despite how much I complained about it.  I wouldn't have anyone below high school read it, just because of some adult themes (nothing explicit).  They probably wouldn't have the patience to get through it anyway.

A note on translations: there have been reams of paper spent on discussing and comparing translations.  I'll try to be brief here.  I picked the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation for several reasons.  First, I believe that having a Russian and an American work together on the translation would make it stronger, having a native speaker in both languages.  Secondly, their translation of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov won the Pen/Book of the Month translation prize.  Thirdly, their translation of Anna Karenina was critically acclaimed, winning the PEN Translation Prize.  If you are interested in reading more, a quick Google search will reveal dozens of (if not more) articles, each comparing different translations and making the case for their preferred one.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Review: The Bell Jar

Book: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Prompt: Read a book set in the summer
Pages: 288

The semi-autobiographical The Bell Jar details college student Esther Greenwood's summer interning for a New York magazine, her struggle with discovering who she is and who she wants to be, and her descent into mental illness (and *SPOILER* her eventual recovery, unlike author Plath, who committed suicide in 1963).

The Bell Jar is proclaimed as a staple feminist novel, and it's easy to see why.  Esther is dissatisfied with the potential futures she sees before her: that of a housewife/mother, a stereotypically female profession such as stenography, and her current track of an English degree (which she is unable to imagine past graduation).  Indeed, Esther's search for identity drives her into her depressive episode, during which she attempts to commit suicide several times.

Finally, worrying for her safety, her mother sends her to an asylum, where she receives treatment including electroshock therapy.  For most of her time in the asylum, Esther merely exists, finding little to amuse or entertain her, save for her breakfast.  She suffers from the typical depressive symptom of finding no pleasure in her old joys.  This is despite her mother's and friends' and one-time boyfriend's attempts to get her to "snap out of it", so to speak.  The treatment of mental illness has come a long way since the 1960s in which Sylvia Plath wrote about and experienced it, and that's something that we should all be glad about.

Plath's writing style is straightforward and honest, and amusing at times.  Mostly, though, The Bell Jar is bleak and depressing.  Esther's struggle to find her identity is relatable, as most of us at one time or another have wondered what on earth we are here for.  Plath certainly conveys in a convincing fashion Esther's fears and concerns about what she is supposed to do with her life, and she gives a sympathetic and honest portrayal of Esther's struggle with mental illness.  However, I found the bad/sad to far outweigh the good/happy in this book, so I was left with a bitter impression.

Final recommendation: Read it if you want to.  I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend it, simply because I found it too dark to be enjoyable.  I would warn against those who have struggled with depression or thoughts of self-harm reading it, simply because I worry that it would push them closer to suicidal thoughts and actions.  Readers of The Bell Jar should know exactly what they're getting into before they start reading, and I definitely wouldn't recommend the book to anyone under 18 or so.