Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April 2014 Bookshelf

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Kindle Edition - 109 pages

I've never read the actual book so in the continuing quest to read classics I decided to kick off April with this short, beloved story.  It was imaginative and fun.  Written in 1900 this story has been adapted for stage, film, and in other spin-offs (past and future).  This story has inspired creativity for decades now. What is it about this adventure that prompts that? I have no answers for that but it is undeniable.  What I didn't realize is that Baum ran with the land of Oz and authored 14 books total about the fantasy land.  The other books get fairly good reviews so now I'm even more curious.  The series seems to be the American "Chronicles of Narnia."  ;)  Anyway, Baum wrote a fun book that I enjoyed and if it was commentary on the political temperature at the time I chose not to even acknowledge that in my reading. :)




Waking Kate (A Short Story) by Sarah Addison Allen
Kindle Edition - 38 pages

This short, extremely so, story introduces the reader to Kate who is a main character in Allen's newest full length novel, Lost Lake.  In this introduction to Kate we find her anxiously awaiting the arrival of her husband home from work one summer evening.  As she waits for Matthew to get home she spends a few minutes with an elderly neighbor who shares a story with her that moves her, makes her think, and calls her to wake up.
I love Sarah Addison Allen, I have read everything she has written and I have loved every word.  This short left me a little wanting, however.  So I'm hoping that Lost Lake fleshes out the short.




The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Kindle Edition - 127 pages

[SIGH]  A friend helped me discover the other day that perhaps I don't really like 19th century literature.  Although I do like Dickens, perhaps he is my only exception.  I felt like I was wading through quicksand reading this "classic."  I read it on the Kindle so I can't reference page numbers but approximately 23 pages into the book the actual story of the Scarlet Letter actually began.  The first 23 pages were unnecessary set-up of how the story came to be in the possession of the narrator.  It was tedious, over-written, a great cure for insomnia.  I almost abandoned the book in those first 23 pages because I despaired that I would actually ever get to the real story!
Once the story of the scarlet letter began the writing did improve some but the overuse of vocabulary makes a book, any book, tedious to read.  Hawthorne is guilty of this.  I can't imagine that in everyday conversation that so much vocabulary was used by normal people. I understand Hawthorne, and other authors, employ vocabulary in attempts to thoroughly describe a setting. character, dialogue but there is a balance that must be achieved.  The scales tipped to overuse in this novel.
In the actual story we meet Hester Prynne on the day she is released from jail with her three month old child, Pearl.  Hester had been jailed for adultery.  Our story takes place in the 1700's, a Puritan society in New England.  Conditions of her release is that she is to stand in the middle of town for three hours with her child so that all can witness her shame.  She also must wear a scarlet letter "A" for the rest of her days as a sign of her sin and shame to others.  No man has come forward to take responsibility in this sin so Hester and Pearl stand alone.  Rumors swirl but Hester remains steadfast in her unwillingness to speak the name of the man. So she is left to bear it alone. Throughout the next seven years the immediate townspeople become accustomed to Hester and Pearl's appearances in public and the scarlet letter becomes secondary to Hester's willingness to care for the sick, sew beautiful clothes for people, and her austere demeanor.  Pearl is referred to as an "elf-child" for her whimsical personality. But as the story goes on the reader discovers the weight of sin and revenge on people.  The scarlet letter has weighed down the personality and very person of Hester.  It seems to have stripped her of her true self.  The invisible scarlet letter the man who hasn't been named nor found out affects his physical health (makes me think of David when he was physically ill because of his yet unrepentant sin with Bathsheba) and Hester's husband, thought to be dead by others, seeks revenge on the man and in fact Hester herself.  This vengeful spirit also takes a toll on his physical health as well as his emotional stability.  When the scarlet letter is fully revealed the reader sees the freedom in which being let loose from the weight of sin brings but also what the comfort of being bondage to sin does.
If anything, this book was an interesting study in sin - the bondage of it, the revenge some seek because of being wronged, and the weight it bears for years, and in some regards the comfort its stigma ends up providing.  I was just glad to finally read the actual story!  But it seems that 19th century literature is not for me, but I'll probably keep trying.  :)




Knit the Season by Kate Jacobs
Kindle Edition - 203 pages

Sometimes you need to just let a series end with some lingering questions, reader assumptions, etc. This series should have ended with book 2, and at the very least this book should have been a novella, not a full length novel.
The character focus in this book is Dakota, the daughter of Georgia who was the main character of book 1. Georgia has been dead for a few years now and everyone is still trying to find their footing after her loss. Dakota splits her time between the Knit Shop and Culinary School, her Dad is dating someone, and she feels pulled in a million directions as she tries to not disappoint anyone or let down her mom's legacy. It's a lot for a 20 year old. The book takes place between Thanksgiving and New Year's.
I guess Jacobs felt like Dakota's character needed to find some maturity for the readers but this book just fell flat for me. I wasn't interested nor did I care about any of the characters and it was a very dull read. It just wasn't that interesting. I almost didn't read it, I hesitated because I felt like book 2 should have been it. I should have gone with my instinct.




The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
Kindle Edition - 205 pages

Christie is one of the most clever people known.  I wonder if in real life, had she attempted to get away with murder herself, if she would have succeeded?  She thinks of everything.  She uncovers all the twists and turns, hidden secrets and clues.  She unearths the true murderer in covert fashion.  Another great mystery by the queen of mysteries.
A body is found in a library and the homeowners have never seen the person before. Not a lot of hope in solving this one, or is there?




War of Words: Getting to the Heart of Your Communication Struggles by Paul David Tripp
256 pages

The war of words isn't a battle of the tongue but a battle of the heart.  Tripp goes on in this important book to give evidence to that statement.  Our mouths speak what resides within our hearts.  So before dealing with communication issues by applying techniques and quick fixes we must deal with our hearts and what they are holding on to.  As Tripp does so well, he unpacks scripture for us to give plenty of supporting evidence to how to be victorious in the war.  Communication is something that all people struggle with to one degree or another.  Just the other night I said to my husband, "I'm not sure how to communicate this to you so that you will understand."  Communication is a necessary part of this life and of relationships.  Tripp helps the reader deal with their own heart so that their communication reflects the heart of God.  He gives practical counsel, from the Bible, about how to communicate in a way that brings honor to God and honors the relationships in your life.  He said a few things that really stood out to me, one being that our communication is to be redemptive when speaking to others.  That really stopped me in my tracks.  Is my communication redemptive?  Sadly, no it is not especially with some people. So I'm thinking, I'm processing, I'm confessing to God where I have fallen short, I'm studying so that what I speak to others reflects worship of God and redemption for us.  Great book, I highly recommend it.




4:50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie
Kindle Edition - 288 pages

A Miss Marple Mystery in which Miss Marple employs a younger person to do the "heavy lifting."  This was a complex mystery in which I didn't even have a gut instinct about who could have possibly done it!  There were so many twists and turns.  It seemed to be a different story than the usual Christie but it wasn't bad at all.  A woman on one train witnesses a murder take place on another train.  It seems impossible but it turns out she actually did!  But how could this be solved?  It seems as impossible as the murder being witnessed but once Jane Marple is clued in to the circumstances a murderer and motive are sure to be found out in due time.  This wasn't one of my favorite Miss Marple mysteries, I think mostly because Miss Marple was in the background for most of the story and I so enjoy her being in the front of things.



The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Kindle Edition - 337 pages

In 2014 several high profile books/authors have their works being put on the big screen.  One of those is this book by John Green.  And since I have a rule for myself to read the book before seeing the movie I wanted to read this one in case I was going to want to see the movie.  And then a good friend read it and loved it so I moved it up on my ever-growing "to read" list.  I read it in less than 24 hours. It moved quickly because it was written so well and so engaging.
Hazel Grace is a 16 year with terminal cancer, that's not a spoiler alert, and her Mom is afraid she's a little depressed.  You think?  As Hazel says - depression is a side effect of dying.  So Mom sends her to a support group of people in the throes of cancer and those who have survived.  Here she eventually meets Augustus, a 17 year old boy, who has lost a leg to his particular kind of cancer.  They strike up a friendship that speaks a language that only Cancer Club members can understand and get away with speaking.  Hazel, Augustus, and their friend Isaac, are refreshingly open and caustic about cancer and life.  For such a young age they are wise beyond their years due to the cancer that has stolen minutes, hours, days, and weeks from them.  Green invites us to witness the growing relationship between Hazel Grace and Augustus.
To see life unfold in the midst of slow death is hard to capture and I feel like Green did a really good job doing so.  It's almost like he took the seed that Nicholas Sparks planted with A Walk to Remember and watered it and made it blossom.  (That is the only comparison between Sparks and Green - the same kind of relationship - otherwise their writing styles differ greatly.)  He took his time to paint a picture of what it must be like for parents to watch their children suffer, but he did it through the eyes of Hazel who he used as the POV for his story.  Green, through Hazel and Augustus and the supporting characters, gives his readers thoughts about life to process.  Through his characters he writes a message of life, of living each day as if it were your last and not despising what each day brings.  This was a really good read.




The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels by Ree Drummond
341 pages

I love the Pioneer Woman's pie crust, chicken pot pie, pizza dough, sangria and other recipes.  I love her cookbook that reads like a book complete with pictures and wit.  Ree Drummond is a warm and engaging person and so when she released a book about her love story with the aptly named Marlboro Man I knew I would want to read it, if for no other reason than to learn more about how she became so entwined with a cowboy and life on a ranch.
Chronicling her love story with the Marlboro Man, Ree Drummond writes her story in novel form rather than a typical biography form.  So at times you almost forget that you are reading a non-fiction story rather than fiction.  Meeting him in a bar on her way to live in a big city Ree had her whole world and life plans turned around for the love of this cowboy.  With his cowboy ways he convinced her to stay in Oklahoma.  Their story is sweet and fiery, almost a little unbelievable really. But it is heartwarming.
It was a pretty good story and Ree has a warm style - much like her food.  I don't regret the time I spent reading it.




The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Kindle Edition - 755 pages

Wow.  I'm a little torn about this book.  There was a review I read in which the reader said there were parts loved and parts hated for them.  I would agree.  It was a massive book and while I have read books of this length before, I have read them quicker.  This story takes dedication to get through.
A brief synopsis: Theo encounters tragedy at age 13 and it defines the remainder of his life.  He suffers from PTSD and it manifests itself in multiple tragic events in his life, highlighted by his own unhealthy decisions.  Throughout his dark life he gains true and loyal friends, people he keeps at arms length yet they embrace him as fully as they can.  In the years he chronicles for us he lives more than one life, he lives several lives.  He is several people, he can be who he needs to be.  While the people in his life don't know who Theo really is, he holds nothing back from the reader.  We are privvy to every dark thought, dark deed, joyous thought, good deed he contemplates or acts on.  We are left, when the story ends, with a Theo who is beginning to settle down into his own skin - but what that looks like in his future is left up to the reader to wonder about.
Tartt wrote the book in Theo's voice and it is a lot of stream of conscience content.  Whereas many novels today are dialogue based this novel is more "Theo thought/recollection" based.  Tartt employs expansive descriptives. She leans heavily on adjectives and setting the scene, providing the picture.  At times Theo's stream of conscience or her setting up the scene is a bit tedious to get through.  Parts of the story felt dragged down or suffocated by her use of description.  To that end, parts of the book - her scene sets - were totally unnecessary to the story and Theo's character overall and hindered my willingness to totally buy in to the story.  In my opinion, a little more editing could have been done to tighten it up a bit.  Theo's story didn't need to be almost 800 pages.  Theo is a character I started out liking but was increasingly annoyed with as time went on.  By the time the story ended I was quite glad to be rid of him. He led, in part by choice and in part dictated by tragedy, a very dark life.  Even moments that seemed to contain joy he would darken with his depression.  He chosen method of addressing the depression only deepened it.  The book, on the whole, was very dark and I felt sucked into it's unhealthy overtones.  Critics call Tartt's writing style "Dickensian" which on reflection fits rather well, although I believe I prefer Dickens to her. But it makes sense, the description and stream of conscience style. Did I like the book?  I'm not sure.  I didn't hate it nor did I love it.  I feel indifferent about it. Tartt uses Theo's voice to explore large life questions and I'm not sure if in the end she accomplished what could have been.  Usually the answers to the large life questions are found simply, her use of description and stream of conscience buried the answers and in the end only seemed to pose more questions.




The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
91 pages

Continuing to read classics that I never have before I chose to read this one.  I have heard of it, of course, but not during all my years of education.  (Which admittedly I cut short.)  This book, and the SparkNotes I looked up on it, make me want to be back in school for the sheer pleasure of learning and writing papers.  Forget the grades, I just want to be a student again!  Yes, I finished the book and while I picked up on a few things here and there I needed to see what I missed.  So I looked up analysis and summary notes on it and read those as well.  Saint-Exupery says it is a book for children but I disagree. I believe it really is a book for adults.  Children don't need the reminders the adults do and that this particular book provides.  It is a fanciful and lovely little tale of the narrator learning life lessons through the story of The Little Prince.  The one to teach the lesson to first the Prince and then to the narrator is a fox.  I love Saint-Exupery's use of the fox to teach the lesson because it is not an animal I would think of nor would I think others might.  Foxes are usually portrayed as the bad character.  I did pick up on the themes of adults having mixed up priorities and neglecting the more important and lasting things of life, such as relationships.  Saint-Exupery laced his simple little story with such profound themes that you could take a whole month to explore the threads of this book and see what life lessons it contains!  As someone who isn't a deep thinker in this regard I enjoy the ability others have to be able to do this and make it fun to read.
For those who haven't read it yet, here is a brief summary: Our narrator has been forced to make an emergency landing in the middle of the Sahara Desert. As he is attempting to repair his plane engine a boy, or so he seems, appears from nowhere and asks the man to draw him a sheep.  The man agrees and a conversation strikes up as he tries to figure out where this boy came from.  It is discovered the boy is actually a Prince of his own planet, population of one.  And due to a disagreement with his much loved rose the boy left his planet but has since decided he wants to return.  During his travels he has met adults on other planets who gave him insight into the intricacies of relationships and priorities.  His last planet to visit is Earth where he has learned the actual life lesson from a fox and is now relaying it to our narrator.
Saint-Exupery not only authored the story but he also provided the drawings that accompany it.  It is whimsical and engaging.  In fact, before I turn it in to the library I will read it once more.  For me, having read the SparkNotes on it and then going back and reading it I believe I will be able to really understand even more what the narrator's intent for the reader is.




Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
325 pages

This isn't normally a book I would pick up but my sister-in-love is in a book club and this one of the books they read and discussed and she loaned it out.  And while it isn't a book I would have glanced at on my own, I am certainly glad I read it.  But fair warning: it has the potential to tick you off as it did me.
This is a true story of the Zeitoun (pronounced "Zay-toon") family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina and the days following.  Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun have lived in New Orleans for years and have built a successful painting/contractor business in addition to owning several properties. They have ridden out hurricanes before so when the city starts preparing for Katrina, Abdulrahman (called Zeitoun by people) is dismissive at first.  As the reports come in that it is perhaps worse than originally thought he sends Kathy and the kids out of the city but decides to stay behind to keep an eye on their house and properties. He is unconcerned, if the levees hold then all will be well and he figures there is no way the levees will be breached. So Kathy and the kids leave and Zeitoun stays behind. And as we all know the levees didn't hold. By the time the water stopped flooding the city homes were 12-15 feet or more under water and those who didn't heed the mandatory evacuation notices were stuck.  Zeitoun fortunately had a canoe and so in the days following he paddled around the city helping to rescue pets that had been left behind, people, and checking his properties.  Unfortunately during crisis moments like this people go on crime sprees and take advantage of the lack of security and ability to protect personal property.  Zeitoun's family is begging him to get out of the city but he insists on staying.  His family loses contact with him when he and three other friends are arrested on false charges and illegally detained, more due to Zeitoun's nationality than to anything else. Katrina happened when the shock of 9/11 was still driving emotions and responses to people of Middle Eastern nationalities.  What happens during Zeitoun's detainment is where I began to feel an internal rage build toward the idiots in our nation.  9/11 was horrific.  There aren't words for how incredibly horrible it was.  But what happened afterward is almost just as horrible.  The persecution people of Middle Eastern descent endured is astonishing and disgusting.  Zeitoun was treated like a criminal, neglected, and accused of being "Al Queda".  How ignorant, how disgusting.  The National Guard and the security that oversaw the detainment of Zeitoun and others was abusive and uncalled for. Truly rage inducing. After a lot of illegal treatment Zeitoun and his friends are finally released although not together - one of them was detained for 8 months I believe.  8 months! For no reason except a very broken system.  Truly maddening.
Eggers wrote a true story in fiction style and I'm a sucker for those kinds of reads.  He assures the reader in the front of the book that he checked all his facts and documented all the facts, that the story is relayed to the best of the Zeitoun's ability to remember it as it happened.  It was well-written and engaging.  Eggers did a great job, in my opinion, of introducing the reader to Zeitoun and allowing us to get to know him. There was more focus on Zeitoun as a person than on his nationality, as there should be with anyone.  Because of this by the time Zeitoun is held in jail and treated as he is the outrage I felt was because the stereotype was so ignorant.  If anything, Eggers story made me step back and examine my own reactions to people of different color and culture and made me examine to see if I stereotyped people as well.  Good read, I'm better for it I think!




Fin & Lady by Cathleen Schine
273 pages

Another book loaned to me by my sister-in-love.  It's an easy-going story of a sister and her half-brother.  Fin has come into the care of his half-sister, Lady, after becoming an orphan.  Lady is a carefree and wild young woman and Fin has to adjust to a whole new way of life.  Put in a position of parenting Lady, Fin learns to find his way in this new world. We follow Fin and Lady from when he comes into her care at age 11 until about age 16 when the book speeds up and summarizes the latter part of Fin's life.
Told in third person, we don't discover who the narrator is until the end of the book. Like I said, it's an easy-going story.  I've not read any of Schine's other titles but she has a simple style.  It flows, she writes a story that is easy to read.  It didn't overly impress me or excite me but it did keep me interested.  I could easily see it become a movie, I think it would be an enjoyable movie to watch.  It's a love story but not one of romantic love and sometimes that is refreshing to read rather than the usual.




Freezer Burn by Gayle Carline
282 pages

I love murder-mysteries.  I think it's because I grew up reading Nancy Drew and Mary Higgins Clark and watching shows with my Dad like Murder She Wrote, Matlock, Remington Steele, Moonlighting, etc.  So I'm always willing to read a murder-mystery and give the author a go.  Gayle Carline probably saw how well Sue Grafton was doing with her woman PI that she decided to jump on that bandwagon. She has crafted her own woman PI named Peri Minneopa.  Unfortunately Peri is too similar to Grafton's Millhone so all I ended up doing for the majority of the book is compare the two.  Carline wrote a decent story and her PI isn't bad at all but it feels very familiar.  In truth it feels a little lifted from Grafton.  That's a shame.
In this story Peri finds a hand in a freezer and the hand is wearing a priceless ring.  The question is, where's the body?  Soon the body is found and the investigation is heating up.  In the meantime Peri is also watching a husband accused of cheating on his wife.  Who said PI work would be boring?  It's convenient for Peri that her best friend is the assistant coroner and her boyfriend is a detective with the police department.  With so many connections to investigate Peri is kept busy but at last it pays off and she, to coin a term, cracks the case.
Carline is a decent writer but it all felt so "Sue Grafton" that I had a hard time separating the two.  It just goes to show that there is "nothing new under the sun."  Nobody really has an original idea, we just build off of others.




A Meal With Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, and Mission around the Table by Tim Chester
138 pages

I read this quickly, much quicker than I thought I would actually.  The title of the book is what caught my eye way back when I added it to my "to read" list.  Sharing a meal together is such an act of intimacy and community that I was curious to see how Chester brought Jesus into it.  Using the Book of Luke as his main text Chester shows us how meals enact grace, community, hope, mission, salvation, and promise. He does it succinctly yet thoroughly.  I appreciated his outline of each chapter's purpose and his to the point message.  Using the Book of Luke he helps us to see that the Son of Man came to do three things as outlined by scripture and one of them was he came eating and drinking. (Luke 7)  And then he went on to show the reader proof of that. It's true! Jesus ate and drank and while he did he flavored the meals with grace, community, and mission.  Jesus didn't run projects, establish ministries, create programs, or put on events.  He ate meals. (page 89)  This book was a great, simple little book on how we are called to mealtime with the same purpose.  The book length is just right, Chester didn't get too wordy (like I tend to).  I really enjoyed gaining more insight into the value of mealtime and being challenged on how to invite in others.




The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Kindle Edition - 246 pages

Since I love mystery so much I can't believe it has taken me this long to delve into Sherlock Holmes!  But now that I finally have I am definitely looking forward to reading more of his cases. I am also in the mood to watch BBC's Sherlock, which I love.  One of the best shows!  Anyway, back to the book...
In this particular title Watson gives the reader 11 cases of Sherlock's, including the final case (and days) of Sherlock himself.  I love how quirky and smart Sherlock is, how loyal and affable Watson is.  I love how well-written Doyle is and how his mysteries are clever and detailed.  I also love how the character of Sherlock Holmes and his characteristics have found their way into modern day detectives (Monk, Elementary, Sherlock, etc).  I really enjoyed reading this book, love Sherlock Holmes and Watson!




The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges
135 pages

I worked for the Navigator's in the 1990's.  Part of my time with them was with NavPress so Jerry Bridges is a familiar author/name to me. Despite that exposure to him, and other Navigator authors, it has taken me until now to read even one of his books - considered by some to be classics regarding the life of a believer in God.
In this book, first written and published in the late 1970's, Bridges tackles the mystery of living a holy life.  Holiness is one of those spiritual disciplines that seems to be shrouded in mystery, spoken of in vague terms, thought of as dour faced people.  Bridges dismantles those beliefs about holiness and in doing so shows the reader what it actually is.  One of the dangers of having been a Christian for so long is that I feel like I have heard it all before, or a version of it! In many cases I am right. Bridges book was a mix for me. A mix of some new thoughts and then the same things about holiness and the Christian life I have been hearing for years.  I liked how Bridges goes about first proving that God is holy and so therefore when he says to be holy because he is, it isn't as if he is asking us to do something impossible. One of the major obstacles, perhaps the only obstacle, to living a holy life is that of sinful choices and behavior.  Bridges doesn't back down or back away from calling out sin and he encourages us not to back away from it either.  Once we start backing away from calling sin sin then we have placed an obstacle between ourselves and the desire to live a holy life. Bridges encourages us to consider whether we live a culturally holy life or a sincere holy life and then he leads the way on moving into a sincere holy life.




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