Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I've been reading a lot.  All I've wanted to do in the evenings is read and read and read.  Part of this is simply due to the fact that with another semester of school looming in the distance, I am all too conscious of the books I want to finish by the end of summer.  But this is not to say that I've been forcing myself to pick up books and read them.  I am enjoying (most of) the books I've decided to read this summer, and my list was such that I could afford to squeeze in other books from the library and my Amazon wishlist (oops).  The book I want to talk about today, though, is one that I had on my summer list from the beginning – it's a novel my aunt gave me last year, and to be honest, I did not have high expectations.  In fact, prior to starting it, I decided that if I was not hooked by page 50, I would quit it.  Spoiler: I was hooked way earlier than that.  Today, I want to talk about a book that surprised me, gripped me, and moved me: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Call it what you like, but I have a thing with/against mainstream or otherwise popular "hyped" books.  I went through a time in my reading a couple years ago when I read lots of those types of books and I was disappointed by most of them.  This experience turned me off to the point of avoiding popular books altogether.  So when my aunt gave me this book, I inwardly groaned because I thought I would be disappointed again.  Alas, my derision has been appropriately chastened and tempered.

Americanah is about a young Nigerian woman named Ifemelu.  The novel follows her move to the  United States for school and her life in the states as she navigates the distinctly foreign racially-charged society she encounters there.  The narrative flips back and forth between her present day life in the states as she prepares to return to Nigeria, and her past, eventually catching the reader up on her life until that point.  Somewhere in the later half of the novel, the perspective switches to that of the man who had been her boyfriend in Nigeria before she left for America and follows his life in the UK and then back in Nigeria.  Ifemelu's story follows each of her relationships in the states as they reveal new things about American society and Ifemelu herself.  The reader also gets relevant and witty articles from her blog on race as they apply to situations.

This book is equal parts entertaining, thought provoking, eye-opening, and just plain interesting.  I learned a lot, not only about Nigerian culture, something I knew next-to-nothing about, but about the way American culture, and particularly our race culture, appears to a non-American black.  I found this perspective fascinating, and admittedly, not one I had ever considered before.  While race wasn't the sole conversation of this book, the topic came up in Ifemelu's relationships in America, not only with the men she was with but also with her friends.  Her blog posts, which were both informative and funny, commented on the differences between race dynamics in the US and in Nigeria.  Ifemelu did not think of herself as black until she came to America.  She had to adjust to the way race is viewed in America as related to class.  The topic of race in this book fascinated me, and Adichie writes about it with wisdom and clarity.  I came away from this book with a new understanding of the racial climate both in and out of the United States and I am grateful for that.

One of the main reasons I picked this book up to begin with, when I frankly didn't want to is because of a TED Talk Adichie gives that I watched in Spanish class last semester.  In the talk, Adichie is talking about the concept of the "single story" and the danger of it.  Here's the video:

I remember being struck by this video when I watched it in class, and it was one of the reasons I decided to actually read Americanah.  In a post a couple months ago, I talked about a book called Secondhand Time, a devastating oral history of Russia post-Sovietism.  I explained that I had read this horrifying account because I believe that it is the responsibility of Christians to try and understand the suffering and grief of the world so that we can both understand God's heart more fully, and be moved to work for the redemption and salvation of our broken world.  I've come to think of this whole concept of the multiple story in the same way.  I think that as Christians, both in order to empathize and better understand the world and people God has made and loved, we have a responsibility to have as generous and accurate knowledge of these things as possible.  Through reading Americanah and thinking about this topic in general, I've decided to make a more concerted effort to learn about places I know little about, or have a single idea of, both through fiction and nonfiction.  I don't know what this looks like, really, and I still will not be reading stuff that I don't want to read just because it's set in a place I am unfamiliar with, or because it's written by a person from a different perspective.  I've simply decided to be more sensitive and open to broadening my understanding of the world in this way.

Finally, to bring it back to this particular novel, I'll quickly talk about the book itself.  I loved the narrative style of this book.  When a story about a single person switches from the past to the present, that works really well for me.  This was one of the reasons this book was so readable.  While the book was over 500 pages long, I didn't want to put it down, which is a major qualification for a summer book.  I loved the main character, Ifemelu, and while I didn't always agree with her decisions or actions, I felt like I got to know and understand her throughout the novel.  I loved the parts of the novel set in Nigeria, and the author does an excellent job of making those parts of the book actually feel different.  Another thing I really loved about the book was the way Ifemelu's blog posts were interspersed at the end of according chapters.  The posts were witty and informative, and helped me gain a better understanding of her perspective.  I can't remember anything about the novel that I didn't like, though it's been a couple weeks since I finished it.

All in all, Americanah is a great novel for the summer, or anytime.  The writing sparkled with wit and wisdom, the characters drew me in, and the narrative pulled me along in the way all good novels do.  I recommend this book if you're curious to learn about this perspective or if you're simply looking for a good summer novel.  You'll be glad you gave it twenty pages.

Reading Americanah made me want to pick up these books:
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue


Coolidge by Amity Shlaes

I found this book a few years ago, in the bargain section at Barnes & Noble, where it was marked down to a startling $7.99 if my memory serves me correctly.  In school, I had just finished studying the period of time between WWI and the Great Depression, and had been fascinated by the brief introduction to Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States, his under-appreciated administration sandwiched between those of Warren Harding and the equally infamous Herbert Hoover.  When I saw a cheap copy of a commanding-looking biography of his life, I picked it up.  Since then, it's sat with my other unread books until I used a credit on the Audible version and listened to it while I mowed this summer.  Today, I want to talk about this stunning biography of a little-known and little-lauded president who deserves more recognition and respect, not least because so many of his qualities reveal the poverty of today's politicians and government leaders (ahem).

This book was fantastic.  I'm not a fan of adjectives, so take that as high praise.  The writing is engaging and held my attention.  This is the sort of nonfiction writing that makes me want to read more of it – accessible and clear yet scholarly and impeccably researched.  Shlaes does an excellent job of treating with fairness every aspect of Coolidge, every seemingly incongruous quirk and habit.  She traces his character growth from his days at Amherst College to his time as president to shed light on his motivations and the solid principles upon which he operated.  She notices the stewardship passed down to him by his father, and how this particular quality enabled him to slash spending and do away with the budget deficit.  His unwavering perseverance even through tragedy and setback meant that his challenges did not stop him, whether that was his struggle with math during his school years, or the stubborn opposition he garnered from Congress during his presidency.  In a way that made him feel utterly human, Shlaes did not shy away from exposing and tracing Coolidge's missteps and flaws, but she ultimately reveals a man with a praiseworthy character that kept him from hypocrisy and selfishness and the petty catering and pandering that often marks politicians.  Coolidge stuck to his guns, even when it would have benefited him politically and personally to give in to pressure from his own party.  While this trademark didn't always make him popular at the time, he was respected for being trustworthy and honest.

Perhaps the greatest thing I took away from this book, apart from the story of a brilliant man, is the example of someone who persevered in doing right regardless of the consequences.  I wish Calvin Coolidge was better known for so many reasons: his brilliance and diligence in managing the federal budget with scrupulous attention, his refusal to back down on his principles or goals, his silence and reticence to speak he is most well known for (and wow, would that be a breath of fresh air today!), and the faithfulness to his family and his marriage.  I was impressed by this biography and Shlaes' execution because this book did what I think all good biographies do – it revealed Coolidge in his complexity and begged that I respect him and appreciate him for who he is.  I totally fell in love with Coolidge and the end of this book made me cry.  Am I the biggest nerd or what?

Quick note on the audiobook: it was excellent and I highly recommend this mode of reading/absorbing.  The version I listened to is narrated by Terence Aselford.  Find it here.

Reading this book made me want to pick up these titles as well:
Herbert Hoover: A Life by Glen Jeansonne


Summer Books!

Ah summer reading.  It's the best.  Today I'm here to talk about books I particularly love reading in the summer in hopes that you'll find one (or five) to read over the ensuing months as well.

I'm just going to start at the bottom of the stack I've accumulated on my bed, so first up: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  A quintessential classic I have re-read countless times and one that never fails to make me all weepy by the end (okay, truthfully, the last time I read it I bawled the whole way through).  Summer is my favorite time to re-read old favorites, and that's why this one makes the list.  It feels like home and for me, there is never a time when I don't want to read Little Women over again.

Another classic summer re-read for me, one that I've managed to squeeze in quite a few summers in a row: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  I actually remember not being crazy about this book the first time I read it in school, but since then, every time I crack it open, I love it more and more.  To me, this is the quintessential summer book - it takes place during summer and Scout and Jem have all kinds of escapades that just smack of kids free of school in the summer.  I love that this classic is so much fun but also deals with heavy issues.  That's a winner in my book (no pun intended.)  One of my favorite quotes that illustrates the way this book makes me feel about summer:
"...summer was Dill by the fishpool smoking string, Dill's eyes alive with complicated plans to make Boo Radley emerge; summer was the swiftness with which Dill would reach up and kiss me when Jem was not looking, the longings we sometimes felt each other feel."
Next on my list: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.  I'm sure I've gone on about the incredible BBC adaptation of this book as a miniseries (it's so so good), but not sure I've really talked about the book.  I read this one a couple years ago over a weekend at the lake, and despite its length - around 500 pages - I remember getting through it quite quickly.  North and South smacks of Pride and Prejudice, with two characters who are evidently in love but unwilling to bend.  As with Pride and Prejudice, the setting and place in this book is significant and plays into the story a lot; the origins of the two main characters has a lot to do with their prejudices against each other.  There's an element of social justice for the mill workers of the English North, which adds an interesting dynamic, and the two characters are fleshed out so well and thoroughly, that the reader is able to connect with them.  I recommend this book for summer because it's one of those rare classics that is actually a quick read, and for me, summer is the time for love stories.  Also, after reading the book, watch the show.

Ugh, this next book is such a great read.  If I had to pick a top five out of all my recommendations in this post, this one would be towards the top.  The book I'm talking about is Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson and oh my goodness, this book is fantastic.  I read it last summer on a whim  – I flew through it, really – and immediately went on to read Simonson's second book, which I won't talk about here.  I described this book on Twitter in the following fashion: "Charming British war vet bookworm slowly falls in love with Pakistani shopkeeper.  Brilliant." And I still feel the same way about it.  That's all the premise I needed to want to read this, and the less you know the more fun it is.  This is the best kind of summer book: tons of fun but also heartwarming.  Also, it was so good to read a romance of a different age group – so often they are about flighty twenty-somethings, but this one is about a couple somewhere in their 60s(?) and it is just the greatest.  I highly recommend this book for your summer list.  Get it here.

The next book I have on my stack is Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen.  I'm not recommending this particular book, rather I'm recommending Jane Austen in any capacity.  I love reading Austen during the summer because her books are nostalgic and satisfying and I know the romance will always be just right.  As I've chronicled on this blog, romance and I typically don't get along, so anything by Jane Austen is reliable and never disappointing.  Her last novel, Persuasion, is my favorite, but Sense and Sensibility is great too.

I mentioned The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James recently and talked about my confused relationship with it.  Well I would describe this next book, A Room With A View by E.M. Forster as a more accessible, enjoyable, satisfying, and much much shorter version of that book.  I read a Room With a View soon after the Henry James and I was struck by the books' similarities.  As with The Portrait, A Room With a View is set in Italy and has a great love triangle.  The characters are fully developed and wonderfully eccentric and it's just the most fun summer read.  Bonus: it's less than 300 pages, so it's a fast one, too.  Find it here.

This next book needs no sort of introduction.  The Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery I consider one of the formational series of my childhood, and yet it's a series I can re-read again and again (as evidenced by the beaten up cover).  The later books in the series are especially engaging for non-children readers.  I love the character of Anne and the whole series is just made to be read in the summer.  I actually have the last two books in the series on my list to read this summer, and I am very excited about it.  Just read the whole series - you'll fly through it.  Find the complete boxed set here.

Okay, last three, almost done!  Next up is Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie.  I think any Agatha Christie novel is great for the summer, but Death on the Nile is one of my favorites.  I also love the Tommy and Tuppence mysteries – those are great.  I love mysteries for the summer because they are so much fun and really engaging.  You'll have a hard time pulling away to do something else.  Death on the Nile is a Hercule Point mystery, and it is a brilliant mystery with an impossible-to-guess solution.  Agatha Christie is a master of her genre.  Find it here.

Second to last book is probably also (unintentionally) my second-favorite book here.  Cinnamon and Gunpowder is the ultimate summer read.  I recommend it to EVERYONE.  It is so great.  Here's my abbreviated premise, once again Twitter-style: Female ginger pirate captures gourmet chef and forces him to cook weekly meals in exchange for his life.  If that premise doesn't immediately sound crazy-good, I don't know what would.  I have a thing for pirates, and the ragtag group in this book fearlessly and recklessly lead by a crazy red-head is nothing short of amazing-ly, mind-blowing-ly good.  This book has a great love story, fantastic descriptions of food, and such interesting and complex characters.  It is impossible to put down.  I've re-read this one twice, both times on the pier at the lake, and the second time I read it, it struck me in new ways and made me fall in love even more.  This book is a trip, it's more emotionally potent than you would expect, and ohmygosh it's just so great.  Please read it.  Find it here.

Finally, at long last, a book I've waxed on about continually since I read it.  The only nonfiction book in this list, I'm talking about Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber.  I did a whole long-winded review of this memoir last year, but I'll quickly mention why I am recommending it now, for summer.  This is one of those books that is deep and hard-hitting and emotionally powerful while also being the most engaging and enjoyable.  There are references to literature, there's a love story and a conversion story that made me cry and I fell more in love with God and the way He works and loves in our lives through this book.  This is one of my favorite books of all time, and I recommend that you make it a priority this summer.  It is so so good.  Find it here.

Those are the books I think you should consider adding to your list for this summer.  All of these are appropriate for reading at the lake, on vacation, or laying out in the backyard.  All of them are awesome.  I hope you find some new favorites.


On the Beauty and the Beast and the Gospel

I have never been a massive fan of fairy tales or anything regarding princesses.  I know more about the Hardy Boys than Cinderella and Prince Charming, and I've never enjoyed stories about witless girls dressing up and swooning over charming boys with flowing hair and more brawn than brains.  My tomboy heart has always gravitated toward adventure over romance, I guess.  Now that I'm older, though, I've begun to appreciate those old fairy tales for the truth they hold apart from the sensationalized and overly girly depictions I knew when I was younger.  

A couple years ago, I read an article by Kristen O'Neal for Relevant Magazine, in which she talks about the value of fairy tales and their inherent truth.  She references Tolkien's stunning essay on fairy stories:
"It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art... In such stories, when the sudden 'turn' comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through." (Tolkien, quoted here)
Tolkien argues that fairy tales set in a world outside ours allow truth to shine in through our own longing.  In the way every young woman in those stories longs for a man who will complete her and make her whole, so we broken humans long to be made whole.  Tim Keller, in a 2008 sermon entitled "Thanks Be To God", also talks about fairy tales and riffs on Tolkien, saying:
"We long to find a love that perfectly heals, and from which we can never part, and we long to triumph over evil, finally and totally.  When you are in the middle of a great fairy tale, the fairy tale lets you live, even briefly, with the dream that love without parting, escape from death, triumph over evil, are real and realizable.  That's why the stories stir us so deeply, and why we will go on reading and writing them no matter what the critics say." (Keller)
That truth and longing is what I want to talk about today.  Seeing the story of the Beauty and the Beast played out beautifully on screen resurrected all my feelings about that story and the greater story of fairy tales.  Beauty and the Beast is my favorite fairy tale, though, granted, I only know a couple, and I'm excited to share what I love about it.  Hang on, folks, it's gonna be a long one.

The conflict of the story of Beauty and the Beast is that there was once a prince whose horrible, selfish actions resulted in his transformation into a hideous beast.  He lost all of his human form, and was essentially exiled to his castle, which was also transformed – it grew dark and scary and in that part of the forest, it was perpetually winter (huh, sound like another familiar bit of fiction?).  This dehumanizing curse also affected some of the people closest to the prince, and they took on the form of objects, though they retained the ability to move and speak.  These characters are wasting away in a castle in the wintery woods, counting down the days until their punishment becomes permanent and they will harden into their forms–the objects will lose their animation, and the prince trapped within the beast will fully become the monster, never to regain his humanity.  That is, unless this horrible, ugly, terrifying creature can somehow be loved by someone.  The beast has given up hope – how could anyone learn to love him?

And yet, there is this girl who comes along, rather by chance, to rescue her father and take his place in the prison, and at once, there is a tiny little sliver of hope.  Perhaps this is the one to love the prince back into life.  Perhaps this one will love him at last.  But things happen and Belle leaves and a horde attacks the castle and a vengeful man shoots the beast, and the last petal falls from the rose and the beast dies in Belle's arms.  And it all seems irrevocably over.  But there's this thing Tolkien talked about in storytelling and in fairy tales in particular – this thing called a eucatastrophe – the idea, or the moment when it seems like everything couldn't get any worse and then it does, and then, when hope has disappeared, the whole thing turns completely around and something amazing happens and the horrible situation that couldn't be worse suddenly couldn't get any better.  That's what happens in this story.  Belle whispers those most consequential words as the beast lies cold and dead: "I love you," and everything changes in an instant.  The beast becomes a perfect man with a heart of gold and all of the objects in the castle who had a moment before turned into just a clock and just a teapot and just a wardrobe become human again and everything is made new and perfectly whole.  And yes, the story does end happily ever after.  It's supposed to.

The unlovable is made whole by love.  The ugly is made beautiful by love.  The lifeless is made alive by love.  The winter turns into spring through love.  The unlovable is loved and at once, everything changes.  

"I will show my love to the one I called 'Not my loved one.'  I will say to those called 'Not my people,' 'You are my people,' and they will say, 'You are my God.'" (Hosea 2:23)

I am unlovable and yet the one who is love loved me and made me whole.  While I was still ugly and deformed, He loved me into beauty.  He loved me into life.  If I am a beast (and I am), then Jesus is beautiful.  That sudden turn in the story that changed everything was when He decided to love me despite my unloveable-ness.  And no, He didn't have to learn to love me.  My affection didn't change his mind.  But then neither did my sin.  He loves always, no matter what.

There's this line in Tolkien's Return of the King that just gets me every time.  After everything is over and Sam and Frodo by their bravery have saved Middle Earth and almost died as a result, Sam Gamgee wakes up in Rivendell and is astonished to see Gandalf, whom he and Frodo had believed dead, sitting at the foot of the bed.  He exclaims, "Gandalf!  I thought you were dead!  But then I thought I was dead myself.  Is everything sad going to come untrue?" (930)  That line ran through my head watching this movie.  Everything sad was coming untrue.  The spell was undone by love.  And so the man and woman loved each other perfectly and the characters became human and whole and loved and lived happily ever after.

All the longing we feel, everything that thrills our weary human hearts in fairy tales does so because they are our stories, too.  There's a Prince who died to save us, his true love.  There's a King who gave up everything for us.  There's a Beauty who loves our beastly selves.  The story of Beauty and the Beast is ours, if we give ourselves over to the love of this King, this Prince, this Beauty.  
"But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed.  After the suffering of His soul, He will see the light of life, and be satisfied (Is. 53:5+11).


Books Recently Read

Well.  It's been a while, but I had a sudden hankering to write about books.  Today, then, I want to talk about three books I've lately finished.  Two of these I read for class and the other is an audio book.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I took a literary interpretation class last semester - I just finished and I'm very sad about it - and during the second half of the class, we read two books: a play, The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, and a novel, The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.  I wrote essays about both of these things, and I am excited to talk about them here.

 Before this class, I'd read a handful of Shakespeare plays and The Tempest was unlike any of them.  It reminded me of Greek mythology, and I really enjoyed it.  The plot of this romantic tragedy centers around an exiled magician, Prospero, and his daughter, Miranda.  Prospero used to be the King of Milan, but his throne was usurped by his brother Alfonso? (not sure...I have the hardest time remembering names in plays), and consequently, he and his daughter were forced to set adrift at sea, and end up on a remote island.  The central event of the play is a tempest that Prospero, by his magic, creates to bring the ship within which are the usurper, Alfonzo, the wise, old Gonzalo, Ferdinand (who will marry Miranda eventually), and a host of other characters to wreck upon Prospero's island.  What seems like a revenge plot takes a sudden turn (or volte) around the 3/4 mark in the book, and Prospero, ashamed that he let his desire for righteous justice fall into base revenge, gives up his plot and his magical powers, and provides for his brother and his companions to return safely to Milan.  There are things I left out, but if this sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend it.  I think it would be an excellent place to start with Shakespeare.  I loved the play, and it had so many interesting themes and elements, any of which I could have written about.  As it were, my essay argued that while Prospero's "fall" seems tragic and hopeless, it was ultimately redemptive in ways that perhaps Prospero himself did not understand.  It is such a fascinating play, and once again demonstrates Shakespeare's utter mastery of his genre.  Note: while the edition pictured is aesthetically pleasing and very cool, I would not recommend it for reading/studying the play.  For those purposes, I recommend the Folger's Shakespeare edition.  Read the play and then get the pretty version.

Next up, The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.  I don't know if I ever mentioned it on this blog, but when I first read this book during the formative years of my youth (early in high school), I kind of hated it.  I enjoyed the reading process, but the ending made me want to chuck it across the room.  Naturally, this experience made me wary when I saw it in the class syllabus, but I had a distant inkling there was something I was missing, and I was excited to see if my feelings would change.  The Portrait is a coming-of-age novel centering around the protagonist, Isabel Archer, an independent, free-willed, intelligent American girl who travels to England with her aunt shortly after the death of her father.  In her early twenties at this point, she becomes close friends with her cousin, Ralph Touchett, an invalid, who is one of a few characters who seems to have Isabel's genuine well-being at heart.  Before she has been in England for too long, Isabel's has attracted suitors and refused two proposals.  She's apparently a great girl who has the power to woo men instantly.  Sarcasm?  Pshhh no...  Early on in the novel, Isabel comes under the influence of a middle-aged woman named Madame Merle, who takes Isabel under her wing in a way, and persuades her to go to Italy to make the acquaintance of this super great guy she knows, named Gilbert Osmond.  Spoiler: he's not super great.  Things progress from here, and I will refrain from spoiling them, though I do truly enjoy ranting about this book.  Now, you may assume I dislike this book from the way I talk about it, but, while I still have vitriolic reactions toward some (most) of the characters, I have come to deeply appreciate it despite all those feelings.  I think this is partly due to my being a more mature reader now, but I think it's a reaction that must be cultivated - intensely disliking parts of a book while still valuing and appreciating it deeply for other, more important reasons.  I'm happy to say, then, that those are exactly the ways I feel about The Portrait.  James is truly a master of his craft, and rereading this made me understand that.  His writing is mind-blowingly amazing, the themes of this book are important and far-reaching, and I could talk about it for a long time.  If you are willing to power through 600+ pages for an ending that mildly disappoints but to ultimately experience a book that is hard-hitting and thought-provoking, read The Portrait.  If nothing else, there are sentences in it that will make you actually gasp.  Find my edition here.

Finally, a book unlike either of the other two – Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich.  I listened to the Audible version of this one, and I'll briefly mention that experience at the end.  About the book itself, though.  Secondhand Time is a completely different sort of historical nonfiction book.  As it says on the cover, it's an oral history, which means that it's full of interviews and stories from people Alexievich has actually sat down and talked to and recorded.  This was my first time reading anything like this, and it was really interesting.  More about that later.  This book is principally about people in post-Soviet Russia living in a country they don't recognize.  Most of the stories seem to be from people old enough to remember Russia before the Cold War and Gorbachov and Yeltsin and before capitalism affects their way of life.  The people Alexievich talk to don't feel they fit in in Russia anymore, and they don't understand the nation it's become or the people who now live there.  Most of these stories are incredibly sad and devastating and horrifying and they opened my eyes to episodes of history I was clueless about.  Now, my thoughts of the book.  I read this book not because I thought it would be enjoyable or interesting, but because 1) I am deeply fascinated by Russian history and 2) I believe that as humans (and more importantly Christians) in the world, we have a responsibility to learn about the pain of the world, to try to understanding the depth of human suffering, and at least attempt to feel something of the sorrow and grief of mankind.  For whatever reason, I believe that this small act in some way honors the loss and pain of humanity.  But mostly, I think it's our duty, my duty, to feel something of the pain God must feel for a world devastated by sin.  We have to look at the suffering of the world and allow it to motivate us to work for the redemption of this earth.  That's why I read this book, and that's why I think it is important to read books like this and engage with stories that are hard and heavy.  And yes, this particular book checked all those boxes.  It is incredibly intense.  There are some really graphic stories in here about particularly horrific suffering.  I had to skip one or two parts because it was too much.  Ultimately, though, I am grateful to have read it.  I have an empathy for those people who believed in socialism and worshiped Stalin as god that I never had before.  Capitalism isn't the right answer for Russia, and there won't ever be an easy solution to the problems that beset a nation with such diverse and complex issues.  This book reminded me that it is impossible to simplify the actions and beliefs of a whole nation of people into a few inadequate words.  I could say so much more about this book and everything it made me consider, but I want to quickly mention a few things about the listening experience.  First of all, the audio book has different narrators so as to recognize when a new person is talking, which was helpful.  The distinctions between the author's voice and the interviewee's voice could have been made a little clearer, but for the most part, there wasn't too much confusion.   However, it was impossible, either because of the audio book or simply because it wasn't mentioned, to tell when each person was telling their story.  I had a vague idea of the era being talked about, but the timeline was fuzzy, which was disorienting.  All in all, the process of listening to the audio book was mostly positive, but I do want to procure the physical book so as to refer to specific stories and dates more easily.  One final note: not unexpectedly, there is a ton of language and really graphic stories/experiences in this book, so like, huge warning.  This book is not for the faint of heart.

This was much longer than expected, but really, would you expect any less from me?  I hope you enjoyed reading about the books I've finished recently.  I am now on a short break before my summer class begins, and I have big plans for reading in the coming week or so.  Anyway, thanks for sticking around!


Five Things - no. 3

I'm on Spring Break now, blessedly, and even though I'll still be doing homework, I'm excited anyway.  I'm going to read, and catch up on movies, and sleep in.  Today, I wanted to talk about some things I've been enjoying/loving recently.

First up, a new podcast called The Allusionist.  It's a podcast in the Radiotopia network, and I absolutely love it.  It's all about words and the histories of words, and the science of language and sounds.  This semester I'm taking an intro to linguistics class, and while the class isn't my favorite thing ever, I'm seeing a lot of connections between what's talked about in class and on the podcast.  If you're a fan of words, check out The Allusionist.  The host's sublime British accent doesn't hurt either.  And while you're at it, take a listen to the other podcasts in the Radiotopia family – the other podcasts are great, too.  Subscribe to The Allusionist on iTunes here.
The next thing I have to talk about is a blog, or more specifically a single blog post that took my breath away when I read it.  Rebecca Reynolds is a friend of The Rabbit Room, Andrew and Pete Peterson's website which is also a new discovery I totally love.  Anyway, somehow I started following her writing website, and I love everything she writes.  Check it out.

I'm taking a literary interpretation class this semester that I am completely and absolutely loving.  I have a great professor, and I just love everything about the class.  The writing is a challenge which I am really enjoying, and all the class discussion about what we're reading is super fun.  I would like to do a post at some point about all the things we're reading/have read, mostly for myself, because I want to remember it.  But yeah, totally loving that class, and kind of sad that it's already half over.

The last three or four weeks, I haven't had any social media on my phone.  I originally did so because I had a couple super busy weeks and I wanted to make sure I was being as productive as possible, but I don't find myself wanting it all back.  I've really, really enjoyed not having it on my phone.  Instagram was my biggest time waster by far, and Twitter is so overtly negative recently it seems, that I grew tired of it all.  Now, don't get me wrong, I love Twitter and Instagram, but I am loving this break and I've decided to continue the "fast" through Lent.  My mind just seems quieter, which isexpected, I guess, but I didn't realize how much I would love being free of that noise.  If you've never totally removed social media from your phone/desktop, I highly encourage you to try it out for a while.

The final thing I want to mention is a book I've finally cracked open this week.  I heard about someone reading this book over Advent, and that inspired me to read it over Lent.  The book is Upstream by Mary Oliver.  It's an essay collection, and it is incredible and breathtaking.  At this rate, I'll be underlining the whole book.  Here's a line I love:
"Something is wrong, I know it, if I don't keep my attention on eternity.  May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful.  May I stay forever in the stream.  May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect." – Mary Oliver
I highly, highly recommend this collection.  Oliver is one of my favorite poets of all time, and these essays are beautiful and startling.  And they make for good Lent reading.

That's everything.  I hope you check some of these things out for yourself and have a great week!


On Lord of the Rings

I'm two thirds through my third re-read of Lord of the Rings, per my tradition of re-reading the series at the beginning of every new year, and I've been taking notes on all the things that stand out to my this time around on the notes app on my phone.  This all is taking me much longer than last year, mostly because February is going way way way too fast for my to-do list and deadlines are approaching much too quickly.  College is trying to kill me, I'm convinced.

Anyway, I thought I'd share some of those thoughts I've accumulated about LOTR today, just as they are in the app, and I hope they will encourage you to read the series whether it's your first time or 26th.

I'm halfway through The Fellowship and one thing's jumped out at me this time through so far.  Good stories of the past are important, not only to share around the fire in the middle of the wilderness, but to repeat in the middle of the worst.  To chant over and over with the rest and hold onto the hope in all of them.  So many times Aragorn or Sam or another has recounted a tale of bravery in the dark or to bind up hearts when the cold clench of evil seems so near.  Story is important to everyone, it seems, in LOTR.  And not made up stories, but real stories of history long forgotten.  I love that. 

A theme Tolkien really hits on in LOTR is the idea of humanness vs. inhumanness: the state of being either human or not and most of his characters fall somewhere on either side.  The Nazgûl, for example, were once men, but because of their infatuation  with the Ring, they eventually lost that humanity completely.  The hobbits and the men are more human, perhaps the most human, but different, and the elves are more-than-human, somehow otherworldly.  And it's fascinating how Tolkien crafts these characters and tells their stories as if they're on this continuous plane and they are either becoming more or less human all the time.  Lewis talks about humans in our world the same way.  We are all either going one way or the other; we're either becoming something altogether lovely or altogether horrible.  And humanness is not physical, it doesn't follow that we appear differently – though that is certainly the case with say, the orcs – it's that we are either going back to the way God first created us at the dawn of time, or we are becoming ourselves like the angel-turned-animal in the Garden.  From a perfect being to one of inhuman evil. 

I'm noticing this theme of returning in LOTR, more so than I have in the past.  And not only regarding the story of Aragorn, but with so many others: Gandalf, Theoden, the hobbits.  There's talk of exile, and going and returning and it's all so irresistibly reminiscent of the return of Christ.

Ah, what a picture of the Gospel and the battle for man's heart.  Why accepting the gift of salvation is so bloody hard, but the most desperate need. (pg. 568)

Also, the Ents are my favorite.  The first couple times through this book, I thought them boring, but they've got a wisdom more than knowledge that runs true as their roots, and maybe there's something to their tree-ness, something there for us.  A tree planted by the river will not fail to bring forth fruit.  They are never hasty, always thinking, but ready as ever to fight for the good.  Their roots run deep in goodness and truth. 🌳🌲🌳🌲

"The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater." – Haldir, The Fellowship of the Ring

"Yet he felt in his heart that Faramir, though he was much like his brother in looks, was a man less self-regarding, both sterner and wiser."  So many characters in LOTR are described as being stern, not in a derogatory way at all, but as something good.  And I think that should be a trait of a Christian.  There should be a sort of solemn seriousness about us beside that subterranean river of joy; a consciousness of the grief of the Father and the pain of the world – a quiet awareness of the brokenness that was mended at such a price. (650)