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.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Review: The Metamorphosis

Book: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Prompt: Read a book with a great first line
Pages: 59

So, since we're talking about great first lines, here's the first line of The Metamorphosis
As Gregor Samsa awoke from unsettling dreams one morning, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
Great first line, right?  It even made it onto my "First Lines of Literature" mug that I found at Goodwill (available at Amazon and from The Unemployed Philosopher's Guild).

The Metamorphosis tells the story of Gregor Samsa who, as the first line indicates, is transformed overnight into a giant beetle of some sort.  As the story continues, Gregor, his parents, and his sister, struggle to come to terms with his insect-ness, to varying degrees of success.  Gregor is transformed from an independent and dependable young man into a (relatively) helpless and needy insect shunned from the rest of the world.

Many of Kafka's works focus on the nature of human existence and isolationism, and The Metamorphosis is definitely one of those.  Gregor's metamorphosis exposes his status as a loner, but it also underlines the fact that, to quote the old adage, "no man is an island."  We all need each other - whether for what they can do for us and we for them, or for the companionship we find with them that we can't really replace with anything else.  As Gregor's insect-ness continues, he finds himself more and more isolated and subsequently, his grip on his human-ness begins to lessen.  In short, as Gregor becomes more and more isolated, he becomes less human.

The Metamorphosis is definitely a short story that makes you think.  Yes, it is absurdist, but it is still poignant in its portrayal of isolation and human companionship.  I'm not a huge fan of absurdist literature - I prefer more concrete and realistic literature - but I still enjoyed The Metamorphosis.  As the dust jacket on my (Barnes & Noble Classics hardcover) copy says, "Readers will find aspects of this tale that unfailingly strike home, although each will readily admit that he or she has never, exactly, been in Gregor's shoes."  And I found that to be true.  While I have never been transformed into a giant insect (who among us has, though?), I could relate to Gregor's loneliness and isolationism.

I think this is especially true of introverts.  It's easy for introverts to minimize their need for other people, especially because people are difficult for them.  But introverts like myself need to remember that we can't live our lives in isolation or we'll end up (metaphorically) like Gregor.

Final recommendation: Read it!  It's less than 100 pages, and is totally unique.  What do you have to lose?

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Review: Anne of Green Gables

Book: Anne of Green Gables by L.M. (Lucy Maud) Montgomery
Prompt: Read a book with a female heroine
Pages: 308

When my sister and I were little, we were OBSESSED with the 1980s movies Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea (also known as Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel) and the corresponding TV show Road to Avonlea.  I don't remember reading the book, however.  In any case, I had a beat up hand-me-down copy of the book on my bookshelf, so I added it to this list for nostalgic reasons.  That turned out to be a wise choice.

Anne tells the story of the charming eponymous orphan, who by mistake is sent to live with middle-aged siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert.  As we soon learn, "mistake" might very well be Anne's middle name.  The starry-eyed dreamer finds herself in numerous scrapes and mishaps, from baking a cake without flour (due to daydreaming) to nearly drowning while acting out Tennyson's "Lancelot and Elaine" (due to a leaky boat).  I literally laughed out loud numerous times while reading Anne, and that is something I rarely do, at least with books.

But Anne is as much a story about Anne's mishaps as it is her story of growing up.  I think lots of us can commiserate with Anne when she is mocked for her bright red hair, even if we were never mocked about our hair specifically.  Even if you didn't have bright red hair and freckles, or have to cling to the piles of a bridge to avoid drowning, or crack a slate over someone's head because they called you a name, we most - if not all - of us have experienced something similar.  And that is why Anne - both the character and the book - is such an enduring favorite.  She's not us - but she is us at the same time.  Anne is a novel about real life that is still relevant today, 100+ years later, and without feeling dated.  Montgomery writes about her characters with such warmth and energy that they feel like family.  Maybe it's the nostalgia talking, but I feel like I know Anne and Marilla and Gilbert and Diana and Matthew.  

I hadn't gotten halfway through Anne when I had to order the complete series.  I look forward to reading the other seven/eight books in the series. (The box set I got only has eight books, including Anne, but many people consider The Blythes Are Quoted/The Road to Yesterday as the ninth book in the series.  And then there are Chronicles of Avonlea and Further Chronicles of Avonlea that take place in the same universe, but feature Anne and the others mostly in the background.  In case you were wondering.)  I also found the 1980s movies again (thanks, random poster on YouTube who has probably had his account suspended already!) and had to watch them again. (On that note, skip The Continuing Story, the third movie.  It's not that great, and doesn't fit the timeline).

Recommendation: Read it, read it, read it!  Read it, and read the rest of the books, and watch the 1980s movies.  I loved it, and I think you will too!  Unless you don't have a soul.  And/or a heart.  Then you might not like it.  But I think everyone who has a heart and a soul will like it.  How could they do otherwise?

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Review: The Secret Keeper

Book: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
Prompt: Read a book you learned about from this challenge
Pages: 496

I found this book when looking at tags of this challenge from Instagram.  So quite literally, I learned about this book from the 26 Books Challenge.

In any case, Kate Morton's The Secret Keeper is a tripartite story focusing primarily on three women: Laurel, Dorothy, and Vivien.  In 2011, Laurel is taking care of her dying mother, Dorothy.  Meanwhile, she is trying to find out about her mother's life during World War II and how it links to the mysterious man that her mother killed in self-defense when Laurel was 16.  The other two stories take place in the years leading up to and including the London Blitz.  It isn't easy to have a cohesive story with three different heroines (much less, switching back and forth between them), but Morton does it with ease and a much-appreciated lack of disjointedness.

I don't want to spoil any plot details, but let me just say that this book contains one whopper of a plot twist.  I didn't see it coming, and I think even the most savvy reader could easily be blinded by it as well.  I think I literally said, "What?!" when I got to that part.

But the thing about that plot twist is that it doesn't feel forced at all.  Looking back, I can see how I as the reader made assumptions about what was meant or implied by a character or narration but how something else entirely was meant.  I hate hate hate when plot twists or major plot developments feel forced or like a stunt (*cough*Divergent series*cough*).  But that's not what happened here.

Now, for something more amusing.  Kate Morton is an Aussie, and this book takes place in England, with English characters.  I never fully believed in the "two (or three) people separated by a common language" joke about American English vs. British English (and, I think, vs. Australian English) until I read this book.  Besides the numerous food and drink types and brands that I didn't recognize (Spangles, Anzac biscuits, billy tea, etc.), I had to look up words like chilblains, truncheon, kirby grips, tommies, haversack, fine fettle, het up, and silverside.  I also learned that "my shout" means "my treat" and court shoes are tennis shoes/sneakers.  But by far the funniest was when a character was described as having "a ladder in her stockings."  By the time I got past the hilarious mental image of a 12-foot ladder being in her stockings, I realized that it meant she had a run in her stockings.  In any case, I found it amusing.

Recommendation: Read it!  It is long, and the pacing is a bit slow, but it is well worth the read!  I wouldn't recommend it for anyone who isn't maybe a junior in high school or older due to some adult content.  It's not terribly mature content, but it is a little risque.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Review: Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel

Book: Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel by Russell Moore
Prompt: Read a book you pick solely because of its cover
Pages: 224

First, the cover.  I mean, the cover is why I picked this book for the 26 Books Challenge.  You see the front cover above.  But what is really cool about this cover is the inside-dust jacket cover.  Check it out!

I love love love this quote!

I first learned of Russell Moore last year, when then-candidate Donald Trump called him 
“truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for. A nasty guy with no heart!”  Needless to say, I had to find out who this evangelical leader who drew Trump's ire was.  And I loved that after the fact, Moore added "nasty guy with no heart" to his Twitter bio - that cracked me up!  (PSA: For the mental and emotional well-being of myself and everyone who might be reading this, I will refrain from discussing Trump further.)

In Onward, Moore shares what he thinks American Christians need to do to "keep Christianity strange."  The crux of his argument is that Christianity's uniqueness from secular culture is what draws people to it.  And that makes sense: why would people see the need to join a religion if the people in the religion are exactly like them?  Most American Christians would agree that the culture is rapidly moving further and further away from the values expressed in the Bible.  You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in the realm of Christian thinking that disagrees with that.  But where Moore differs from many of his contemporaries is on the question as to whether we were ever really a Christian nation after all.

Sure, we were founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and many of our founders were Christians, to varying levels of devoutness.  But a "moral majority" does not equal a Christian one.  Indeed, the fact that many churches, especially in the South, refused to speak out against slavery or the resulting Jim Crow laws, or reassigned those who did.  My dad went to tech school with the Air Force in Biloxi in the 60s.  A local Methodist preacher spoke out in support of the civil rights movement and against segregation and was promptly transferred to a church in the north.  But I digress.

In several chapters, Moore exposes the conflation of Christian values (or cultural Christianity, if you will) and a political solution.  As Christians, it's fine to be engaged politically and to work for political ideas and solutions.  What is not okay is to elevate politics - or politicians - to the same level as Jesus.  For me, that is part of what was so disappointing about this last presidential cycle.  In some cases, people threw away their beliefs - or worse, their consciences - for political expediency.  But again, I digress.

Moore proclaims that "We can be Americans best if we are not Americans first."  That is, we can best serve our country if we regard Jesus as more important than the United States.  If we serve King Jesus before we serve the federal government, our country is best served.  If we carry forth those beliefs in inherent human dignity - of all people, no matter what their life circumstances - and freedom and kindness and selflessness and so much more, the country will be better for it.

Recommendation: As you may be able to tell, I loved this book.  It gave me so much to think about, especially as I've been ruminating on many related topics through the course of the last year or more with the recent presidential election.  It's well worth a read, and is, compared to other books like it, comparatively easy without being shallow.  Read it!