June 2014 Bookshelf

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel by Robin Sloan
Kindle Edition - 286 pages

What a fun book.  Naturally I was drawn to it at first because it appears to be about a bookstore and there are so few things that can get better than that.  Robin Sloan is a new writer on the scene and he created a really fun and intriguing story with this debut.  It seems he is considering making it a series of some sort, we'll see.
Clay Jannon is down on his luck.  The recession hit him hard with the loss of a job and no prospects on the horizon.  In desperation he starts applying for anything and one day as he's walking down the street he notices Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, a curiosity in itself, and they are hiring.  He walks in and from that moment on nothing is the same.  The bookstore is indeed open 24 hours a day but rarely visited by paying customers.  Odd characters come in the late night and early morning hours to exchange books written in code.  They are stored on high shelves reachable only by sliding ladders.  Clay is curious how the store stays open and as one curiosity leads to another he discovers a secret society within the odd characters and books of code.  With the help of his friends, Clay and Mr. Penumbra set out to crack the code.  The questions are many: Is there a code to crack?  What will happen if it gets cracked?  How does the secret society feel about the code?  What happens to the bookstore in all of this?  And more.
Sloan crafted a fun book, it was engaging.  I kept reading because I wanted to know more about Clay and his friends and their abilities to lend to this secret society code.  It was a little tiny bit like the movies National Treasure but set in a bookstore and books were the keys.  In this book Sloan explores the relationship between printed books and technology.  He also explores the ways in which technology touches our lives and influences our thinking, decisions, etc.  Some things can only be accomplished with technology, other things can only be accomplished with actual brain power.  He shows both sides of this new debate that has arisen in our tech saturated society.  It was a really fun book to read, if he does continue it as a series I am curious to see how he does it.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Kindle Edition - 352 pages

Based on factual events Kent's debut novel attempts to show an ambiguous side to Iceland's controversial Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman in Iceland to have been executed.  While this novel is a work of fiction Kent drew from historical records for the foundation of the story.
Agnes Magnusdottir has been charged with murder of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson along with two others.  It is 1828 and Iceland's rural areas are not set up properly to house criminals of this nature.  Her final months are to be spent on the farm of Kornsa and working for the family who lives there.  She is also to be supplied with daily visits from a Priest to help her prepare for her execution and to bring her to repentance for her crime.  And so we meet Agnes, not the one the public has created but who she really is.  Through many visits she slowly reveals her story, including the night of the murders.  It becomes evident that Agnes has a hurtful story and things are not always as they seem.  Attempts to appeal her execution have failed and she is just biding her time.  Drawn into her story, almost against their will, is the family at Kornsa and the Priest. They end up providing the emotional support she needs and has never before received.
Kent traveled to Iceland when she was a teenager and heard the story of the murders at Illugastadir and of the "inhumane witch, stirring up murder" Agnes Magnusdottir.  The story intrigued her enough that she turned it into a research project and created a work of fiction from Agnes life in an attempt to show a different side of the story.  Agnes has lived on in Iceland's history as an evil woman but Kent thought, "What if she wasn't evil and was innocent?"  In 1828 there wasn't a proper method of sussing out the truly guilty and most times one was convicted as guilty by association, by being in the same vicinity of the crime.  Kent's first book is ambitious and she mostly pulls it off.  I say mostly because I really felt like the first half dragged a bit too much.  It moved very slowly for me, I kept having to motivate myself to keep reading.  One thing that did motivate me is Agnes and the story of the crime, I was sure Kent would include it and I really wanted to know what happened.  But about halfway through the pace of the story seemed to pick up and I got through the second half rather quickly. Kent's research and portrayal of Iceland and the areas in which the story took place are thorough and give the story the authenticity it needs.  Because she had so much information at her disposal about the people involved in the crime and the crime itself the book is well thought out.  The actual details of Agnes' life are fictional but I really appreciated someone taking the time to present a different side of Agnes and present for examination, "What if she wasn't evil at all?  What if she might have been innocent?"

Wrestling the Word: The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Believer by Carolyn Sharp
154 pages

I really enjoyed this book even though I felt like I needed a dictionary and thesaurus with me to read it.  :)  I didn't realize, when I requested the book, that it was written by a Yale Associate Prof so it reads more like an academic textbook than a layperson book.  Nevertheless I wasn't deterred and I enjoyed it very much.
Sharp is a Prof of Hebrew Scriptures at Yale's Divinity School and she knows her stuff.  She is a well-educated and well-spoken woman.  She is very good at walking the balance beam of debate between two major views when it comes to the Hebrew Scriptures.  I really appreciated her style of addressing the views, even the ones she doesn't personally hold to.  She also surprised me with her open faith in God.  She has a deep love for her Creator and expresses it often.  Part of her expression comes in wanting to help people read the scriptures outside of the box that perhaps they have been in.  Enter this book she wrote.
Sharp takes time to discuss how people read the scriptures. How they read them with their own bias, cultural viewpoints, etc.  She then lays out the case for setting those aside so that the scriptures open up in ways we may not have ever anticipated.  We can, she says, lay aside our personal bias and preference so that we can read the scriptures in a fuller and perhaps more accurate context.  She talks about how to read passages that are troubling, how to examine and be mindful of historical content, how to understand when literary play is at work in the text, etc.  Truth be told, a lot of the book went right over my head due to it's academic bent BUT I do feel that I got the overall message of the book which is to wrestle with the word much as Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord and to not give up wrestling with the word and to be open to it saying something different than what I was told it meant way back in the day or even last week.  Sharp also beautifully discoursed on how it is beneficial to have different kinds of readers for the scriptures. Some will always read it academically, some historically, some in story form, some for personal application, etc and she encourages the reader to not be threatened by the way people approach the scripture but to glean from them as they are hopefully gleaning from how the reader takes it in.  She rightly points out that we need all the different perspectives on the scriptures to bring it to fullness. I'm very glad I tackled this book, it gave me a lot to consider and it even affirmed some of my own viewpoints which I have discoursed on myself but at the elementary level, not at the level Sharp does.

The Untold Story of the New Testament Church: An Extraordinary Guide to Understanding the New Testament by Frank Viola
183 pages

The Bible as most of us read it isn't in order of date written.  Rather it is organized by length of books and a few other insignificant factors.  So when it is read and studied sometimes, maybe more often than we realize, confusion ensues because things seem out of place or dates seem confusing, etc.  What Viola does is give the reader a broad overview of the New Testament Church following the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.  But he presents the overview in chronological order so it makes a little more sense.  For example, because Matthew starts off the New Testament people generally believe it was one of the first books written.  That is not the case.  Just because it is first in the organization of the Testament doesn't mean it was written first.  Because the Apostle Paul was such a key figure in bringing the Gospel to Gentiles Viola uses his conversion and journeys and a large basis for the chronological order of things. The front cover of the book claims this is an "extraordinary guide" to understanding the New Testament.  I don't know about extraordinary but it certainly is good to read through and gain a better understanding of order and how events unfolded.  It gives the reader a better sense of historical context and clears up questions about dates and timelines and such.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf
Kindle Edition - 320 pages

Plainsong is book one in a trilogy.  Kent Haruf is a simple writer, he writes simply, his characters are simple, and his story lines simple.  But simple can be good and in Haruf's case it is good.  He writes with warmth and familiarity.
In Plainsong we are introduced to some of the residents of Holt, Colorado.  The book focuses on families, some created through marriage and some created through necessity.  We meander through the days of Holt with Guthrie, Ike and Bobby, Victoria, and the McPherons. Other characters play important roles but aren't specifically focused on like these I have mentioned.  There is nothing spectacular or outstanding about any one of these characters but you find yourself drawn into their story and into the larger story.  Haruf writes about community and he does it very well.  He knows how to tap into what makes a smaller community tick and what are the pros and cons of one.  I loved that he highlighted the residents in a community who are always willing to swim upstream against the flow of popular thought.  The McPherons come to mind.  He has them behave in a manner outside the norm for their age and generation and it is heartwarming.  But it is also realistic because every community has that person, or two, that does something surprising and outside what society would say is okay.
Like I said, Haruf writes with warmth and familiarity, he makes the story feel as if you are walking through town and listening in on the conversations and stories, as if perhaps you are a resident there yourself and observing these stories play out.  He leans toward more descriptive writing rather than conversational writing and it serves the stories and his characters well.  His writing makes you want to curl up with a blanket and a cup of tea and just breathe.

Eventide by Kent Haruf
Kindle Edition - 320 pages

Haruf continues in this book to immerse the reader in the community of Holt, Colorado with some familiar characters and some new ones. The McPheron brothers are back as is Victoria.  Maggie Jones makes appearances still serving as the common denominator between people and Guthrie appears alongside of her.  In this title we meet DJ and his Grandfather, Mary Wells and her daughters, Luther and Betty Wallace and their children, Betty's Uncle, and Rose Tyler.  Haruf examines the everyday lives of the residents of a community and highlights the hardships and victories that can be had.  In some ways I feel like he also purposes to expose what is hiding, perhaps, behind the front doors of the homes you drive past.  He also explores the bravery it takes to make changes and to dare to live a fuller life.  Again the book is simple and yet captivating in its simplicity. It's an entirely different chapter format than Plainsong which surprised me a little. And Haruf doesn't use quotation marks for dialogue, something I didn't mention in my review of book 1.  Some people seem to have disdain for Haruf's simple writing but I rather enjoy it.  He develops characters well, he sets scenes beautifully, and his story lines are about every day life in America.  While some of his story lines are upsetting they nonetheless don't shelter the reader from the realities of life and so reading his books makes, this reader at least, you feel almost at home in a weird sense.

Benediction by Kent Haruf
Kindle Edition - 274 pages

Haruf waited 9 years to finish up the Plainsong series.  He published Eventide in 2004 and Benediction was released in 2013.  I feel like in those 9 years he lost a little of the mojo Plainsong and Eventide possessed (and there were 5 years between those two books being published).  Nevertheless, in his characteristic simplicity, Haruf once again takes the reader to Holt, Colorado and wraps up this trilogy with the focus being on one man and his family.  Other characters come in and out of the story and there are a couple of side stories but the focus is on Dad and Mary Lewis.
The book opens with Dad and Mary getting news from his Doctor that sets the tone for the book and for their story.  As Dad's health declines due to the cancer eating away at him we learn more of his story of the life he has lived.  Just as you would expect a sick person might do, remembering their life in bits and pieces that don't necessarily connect, Dad's story does the same.  As he travels all over his memory we go with him and listen in on the things that affected him the most in his life. We learn of his regrets, his proud moments, how much he loves his wife, his concerns. And just like life Haruf doesn't wrap up the story with a pretty red bow but he leaves it open, moving forward without much fanfare.
This third book was a different conclusion to the series than I expected. That's not to say it was bad but it didn't bring back any of the characters so key in the other two books and the ending of the book was abrupt, in my opinion.  I did enjoy, however, the story of Dad Lewis and his wife.  I stand by my assessment of Haruf, he writes wonderfully simple and homey stories.

Notes from a Blue Bike: The Art of Living Intentionally in a Chaotic World by Tsh Oxenreider
Kindle Edition - 240 pages

I'm always interested to hear from others who are attempting to live intentionally in a fast-paced, technology saturated world. It is no easy feat to slow down in this life so when I come across others who have ideas and have managed to find small ways to do it then I'm all ears.
Oxenreider and her husband had the privilege of living overseas in Turkey for a few years which set the foundation for living a slower paced and more intentional way of life.  Entering back in to America was a shock to the system, a reverse culture shock of sorts and it set off a series of conversations and attempts to reclaim the ways they knew their life for their family needed to be.  Life is all about trial and error and Oxenreider is refreshingly honest in sharing those. She makes no attempts to pretend she has "arrived" at the place of living intentionally, she admits it is difficult and easy to be sucked into the whirlpool of this western, developed world life.  She shares some of their trial and errors, how they choose to make life intentional, and poses questions for the reader to think through in regards to their own living and how they might make it more intentional. She also doesn't prescribe a set formula for this slower, intentional life that "everyone" must follow - she acknowledges that it will look different for each family, that a slower paced, intentional life is unique to each family.  That is refreshing when generally many who have good intentions to share what they have learned set it forth in a manner that is a prescribed method and everyone should follow it to a "t".  The one thing I think she makes clear, as do others who have ideas about living more intentionally is that it is a family goal, that everyone in the home is on board and contributes to a more meaningful life.  This is where I always get hung up, as I am the only one in my home who would love to pursue a more meaningful life.  Still, there are some things I can do and implement and I will do what I can.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
229 pages

In 1993 when Beah was 12 years old he was thrust into a civil war in his home country of Sierra Leone.  Rebel armies attacked his village and surrounding ones and he, with his friends, fled for their lives.  They spent the next several months dodging the rebel soldiers who take pleasure in killing for fun and looting for food, etc.  Eventually Ishmael, now 13, and his friends end up in a village that is protected by a Government Army fighting the rebels. But he soon learns that in many ways they are just as corrupt as the rebels. He becomes addicted to drugs, kills more people than he will ever be able to recall, and builds strong walls around himself so he doesn't have to feel.  After a couple of years of this life he is mysteriously chosen to be rescued by UNICEF and taken to a rehab.  At this rehab center he goes through an extensive detox and healing process as a result of his life as a boy soldier. Ishmael regains his life and is extended opportunities that take him further than he ever dreamed.
This is a compelling and moving story.  Many of us have heard of "the lost boys" who were forced into being soldiers for rebel armies but this is the first memoir that I have read of one who voluntarily, kind of, joined an army that wasn't rebel but government, kind of. What struck me about Ishmael and the others fighting this civil war was how quickly they turned from living intelligent lives to those of thugs addicted to drugs and lusting for revenge.  Ishmael speaks of knowing Shakespeare and excelling in academics prior to the attacks but all of that part of his life dissipates in the fight. And to regain it he had to battle many wars within himself. Very inspirational story of a boy who lived, lost himself, and lives again.

Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah
243 pages

Beautifully written.  A beautiful, heartbreaking, and heartwarming story of trying to rebuild life after a civil war has ravaged your village and country.
Ishmael Beah crafts a tale of the residents of Imperi.  Forced out of their village years prior they slowly start returning.  In the opening pages we witness two elders returning to their devastated village and working to bring order and restoration to it before the younger people return.  As the village begins to fill up again with the wounded, physically and emotionally, Imperi comes to life once again.  Hope is being reborn.  But one Saturday morning hope is threatened by the sounds of heavy machinery and trucks moving through the area and in the days to follow a mining operation is established and it changes the physical and emotional landscape of Imperi.  The past, the values, the beauty of the country is ignored in the name of the almighty dollar and the residents of Imperi are forced to adapt to a new and uncomfortable way of life.  Beah gives us focus on the story of Imperi through two men and their families, Benjamin and Bockarie.  There are other wonderful characters but the story weaves in and out of them. Highlighted through them is the incredible resilience and optimism the people of Africa always seem to carry within them.  The commitment to an honest and good life, education, and work ethic is a trademark of so many.  The tale chronicles the efforts of Benjamin and Bockarie to keep their families together, provided for, and educated so there is hope for their future despite the many obstacles that attempt to block their way.
A wonderfully crafted story, fiction but certainly based on fact.  Beah's characters are engaging and relateable.  He writes, in detail, about the damage the mining operations have done to the citizens and land of Africa's continent.  Some may say he writes a one-sided perspective of it, I would disagree.  He writes a realistic portrayal of the disrespect and danger these mining companies have moved into Africa with.  It truly makes my blood boil, the disrespect they show the citizens of whatever nation they decide to rape and pillage for an increase to their wealth.  And unfortunately some of the nation's own citizens take part as a way to be protected or to provide or to self-serve.  Disgusting.  But in the midst there are always those who look for and hope for a better tomorrow and tirelessly work to that end.  Those people are the redemption of their nation and culture. This was such a moving and beautifully told story.

Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us by Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman
244 pages

When this book was first published I read about it and added it to my "to read" list. Who doesn't say at least once a day, "That is so annoying" or "He/She is so annoying" or some variation on that indicating your annoyance?  While reading this book I did notice how many times a day I may mumble about my annoyance with someone or something.  :)  So a book about the science of annoyance is fascinating to me!
Palca and Lichtman truly do discuss the science behind what may be annoyances.  In that regard it was a little over my head at times.  I can handle science speak in layman's terms but when it starts getting too technical I start to glaze over.  So I really had to focus and slow way down on those parts.  But I managed to grasp the overall conclusions of the book.  Annoyance is a mystery within the emotional psychology world.  Some say it is on the anger spectrum, others say it belongs in a class almost by itself, and yet others aren't really sure where to place annoyance.  Frankly, it's a little annoying to not know where to put it!  Ha.  And yes, that kind of irony is throughout the book.  The authors, leaning heavily on various research done in and around this mystery response, conclude that annoyance in social ways, in olfactory sense, in breaking of rules, in missed expectations, in interruptions of obtaining a goal, in auditory sense, in some brain injuries are all legit reasons for annoyance to occur.  The research in each field can point to reasons why annoyance may be felt or happen.  Because it is such a vague response there is still a lot of cloud cover as to how annoyance progresses in someone but there are scientific studies that are helping to point the way to progression.  This was such an interesting read and look into the response of annoyance.  It's really making me think through the times when I utter that I am annoyed.  The basic conclusion of the book though is that everyone feels annoyed at times, perhaps even daily, and it is our chosen response to the annoyance as to how deeply we let it impact our days.
This is a "fun" and informative read on such an interesting topic. I'm not annoyed at all that I read it, I'm rather glad!

Grace for the Good Girl: Letting Go of the Try-Hard Life by Emily P. Freeman
254 pages

Bah.  For all the work I have allowed God to do in my life I still have the tendencies to live a try-hard life.  Oh I am miles down the road from where I started but I still have seasons of trying hard and ultimately failing hard.  I'm always drawn to discussions about grace because I have a really difficult time allowing grace in my life.  Someone once told me that because I don't allow grace in my life I don't extend grace to others.  I disagreed then and I disagree now.  For some reason it is way easier for me to extend grace to others than myself.  I see them as worthy of it, me?  Not so much.  So the title of this book caught my eye because I try-hard in this life.
The book is broken up into three parts and in part one Freeman talks about all the masks that good girls who are trying hard wear.  Well darn it all if I don't also own every single one of those masks.  I don't often wear them anymore but neither have I gotten rid of them.  I suppose I keep them around for the "just in case". The just in case what?  Just in case I want to be miserable?  I need to rid my life of them for good.
Parts two and three were good but a little more tedious to get through for me personally.  See, when you are birthed into the church you have been there, heard that, said that a million times over and it is mind-numbing after a while.  Not that what Freeman was saying wasn't truth and good and absolutely right on but I have read/heard so much of the same stuff for so many years that I now find it a little tedious to get through.  It slows me down a bit.  But it was good and for someone who hasn't been birthed into the church these things that Freeman says are vital to hear. Unfortunately the message we get through the pulpit and women's ministries usually contradict what Freeman is saying so you need to be able to discern truth and kick lies to the curb.  (GASP.  Are you saying Beth that Pastors and Women's Ministries lie to us?  Well, yes. Not on purpose mind you but they do because they also have fallen for the lies and don't even see it.)  We have to learn to discern between what the Bible and God actually say and ask of us and what are man-made traditions that put us into bondage.  But that's a whole different topic. :)  I digress.
It was a good book.  A worthy read.  She also wrote one for teen girls which I have requested so I can read it and then have my oldest read it.  She already has struggles with masks and trying hard.  I'd rather see her free of it much sooner than later.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich
368 pages

I've not heard of Louise Erdrich before but thanks to my sister-in-loves book club I get the pleasure of reading new-to-me authors. From a quick scan of Erdrich's other titles she focuses a lot on Indians in America living on Indian Reservations.  Erdrich's style is similar in quite a few ways to Kent Haruf's.  Very easy to read, dialogue part of the story and not separated by quotation marks and indents, balance between character development and setting, simplistic but in all the right ways.
In this title we spend time on an Indian Reservation in North Dakota through the voice of Joe, a 13 year old boy. It is the beginning of summer 1988 and Geraldine, Joe's mother, has been brutally attacked.  The violence and brutality of the crime has silenced her and she withdraws from the world.  Joe and his father, Bazil, who is a tribal judge try to be a place of calm for Geraldine while trying to search out answers to this crime.  Who did it? Where did it happen? Why did it happen? As the residents of the reservation circle around Joe and his family to protect them and try to cooperate with the federal investigation of the crime Joe becomes frustrated with the length of time it is taking.  So with his three friends Joe sets out to find answers.  Along the way, through the days of investigating and the roads that lead them all throughout the reservation, a cast of characters helps Joe and his friends find the answers they need.
I love a good and creative coming of age story.  And this is a coming of age story as much as it is a mystery to be solved.  So win-win for me!  I've never been on an Indian Reservation but it seems to me Erdrich has and she tried to capture it accurately.  It is such an interesting culture within the already melting pot culture of America.  She took the time to paint the picture of the differences between federal law involvement and tribal.  I'm not sure how much has changed since 1988, the setting of the book, but I do know the Indians have their own code of conduct and laws that they attempt to uphold before federal law can interfere.  I found this title to be beautifully written, well executed, and peaked my interest in the reservations of this country.  It's always a bonus when I can learn more about something.  I like Erdrich and her style so I'll be looking at her other titles in the future.

Just a Minute: In the Heart of a Child, One Moment ... Can Last Forever by Wess Stafford
224 pages

Wess Stafford is one of the most genuine, compassionate, Spirit filled men I have ever "known."  He is humble and unassuming and has the heart of God for the children of this world.  I admire him greatly.  His book, Too Small to Ignore, was moving and inspiring.  This book creates the same inspiration, the same move of heart.
In this book Stafford recounts the mere minutes it takes to build up or tear down a child's future.  He shares true accounts of people who were influenced for good or for bad by the minutes adults used to speak to them.  It's a challenging book in that it challenges the popular excuse/idea that in order to influence a child we need days and weeks of time spent with them.  Wess proves, through the real life stories he shares, that in reality it may only take a single minute to influence a child.  And then he exhorts us to go out there and spend a minute or two speaking value into the life of the children that come across our path.
A great read because it reminds us that we have the ability and the power to speak life, not death, over the children of this world that will grow up into the next generation to lead in this world.

Graceful (for Young Women): Letting Go of Your Try-Hard Life by Emily P Freeman
171 pages

Before handing this over to my oldest to read (I hope she does) I wanted to read it and make sure it was something I should be recommending to her.  And it is.  In fact, even though I read the adult woman version of the book earlier this month, I also responded to this one.  At the beginning of the book as Freeman is introducing herself to the teen girls she hopes read the book she says, "....most days I still feel seventeen inside.  I look around and wonder when the grown-ups are going to show up and take care of things, and then I remember I am one."  Boy can I relate.  And I think I responded to this one as well because I do feel seventeen still - in so many ways.
Freeman tackles the personas that girls tend to create and wear.  They were spot on.  She didn't miss the mark at all, rather she hit the bulls-eye.  She addresses them in, I think, relateable ways for teen girls.  I really appreciated the way she discusses this with teen girls.  It is the way I long to talk about it with my daughters but because I'm the Mom I don't have a "loud" enough voice for them to really hear me.  So I'm hoping they hear it through this well written book by Freeman.  Truly it takes a village.


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