Recently Read - January + February

It seems that one could accurately deduce the breaks in my semester by paying attention to my otherwise unpredictably-timed blog posts.  I am on spring break this week (glory be) and I wanted to bang out a post about some really amazing books I have read recently.  So far, I have surprised even myself by the number of books I have managed to read (or listen to) during the first hectic months of the year, and I can only hope that I maintain such a pace.  But without further waffling, let's talk about the books.  That's what we're here for, right?

The first book I want to talk about today is an essay collection by Marilynne Robinson, called When I Was a Child I Read Books.  I read this collection in January during the last of my Christmas break and I totally loved it.  Marilynne Robinson is one of those authors I've always wanted to read, and while she is most well-known for her fiction, she is admired as an essayist as well.  This collection was her first, and it includes pieces on theology, culture, and the social and political climate of America.  I was blown away by her incisive commentary and the intellectual rigor she brings to these essays.  She pulls zero punches, and her writing is sharp and smart.  This essay collection was beautiful and piercing and deeply insightful.  I plan on reading everything Robinson has ever written.  One of my favorite essays from the collection was one entitled "Wondrous Love," and this is perhaps my favorite passage: 
"If we sometimes feel adrift from humankind, as if our technology-mediated life on this planet has deprived us of the brilliance of the night sky, the smell and companionship of mules and horses, the plain food and physical peril and weariness that made our great-grandparents' lives so much more like the life of Jesus than any we can imagine, then we can remind ourselves that these [Biblical] stories have stirred billions of souls over thousands of years, just as they stir our souls, and our children's. What gives them their power? They tell us that there is a great love that has intervened in history, making itself known in terms that are startlingly, and inexhaustibly, palpable to us as human beings. They are tales of love, lovingly enacted once, and afterward cherished and retold — by the grace of God, certainly, because they are, after all, the narrative of an obscure life in a minor province. Caesar Augustus was also said to be divine, and there aren't any songs about him."  
 The next book I have to talk about is one I read for one of the history classes I'm taking this semester.  The book is The River Between by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and it is a moving story about a Kenyan tribe during the mid-20th century as it wrestles with the implications and consequences of British colonialism.  I did not expect to appreciate this book as much as I did.  First of all, I had never heard of the author, which for me is a little rare, and, while I enjoy reading books for class, there is always a suspicion about assigned reading that somehow it is less promising because it's assigned.  All of that to say, I was rather floored by this book.  This book is barely 150 pages long, and it is written over several of years as it traces the life of Waiyaki, a character who is sandwiched between a passion for the education that the English have brought and which he longs to use for the enlightenment of his tribe, and the insistent conviction that the British are tearing the tribe apart and quietly, insidiously destroying the land.  One faction of the tribe has, under the leadership of the esteemed Joshua, converted to the white man's religion and turned away from the tribe's culture and traditions.  The other faction has set itself firmly against the British and is allied in hopes to get out from under imperialism.  Waiyaki is uncertain of where he stands and he vacillates between his own convictions and fears.  While I believe colonization and decolonization are processes far too consequential and heavy to simply take an interest in, they are deeply important and the outcomes are often heartbreaking.  I have become more aware of and interested in stories of de/colonization in various classes I've taken and as a white American, I believe I have a responsibility to understand them to the best of my ability.  Beyond that, however, I think that we have a responsibility as Christians to understand colonization and how it happens because throughout history evangelism and missions have gotten tangled up with colonization in ways that are not only antithetical to the Gospel of Christ, but do serious, lasting damage to the people for whom the message is intended.  I may do an entire post at some point discussing various historical examples, but here I will simply share a passage from the book that is so profound and eye-opening I still think about it all the time.  
“For Waiyaki knew that not all the ways of the white man were bad.  Even his religion was not essentially bad.  Some good, some truth shone through it.  But the religion, the faith, needed washing, cleaning away all the dirt, leaving only the eternal.  And that eternal that was the truth had to be reconciled to the traditions of the people.  A people’s traditions could not be swept away overnight.  That way lay disintegration.  Such a tribe would have no roots, for a people’s roots were in their traditions going back to the past, the very beginning, Gikuyu and Mumbi.  A religion that took no count of people’s way of life, a religion that did not recognize spots of beauty and truths in their way of life, was useless.  It would not satisfy.  It would not be a living experience, a source of life and vitality.  It would only maim a man’s soul, making him fanatically cling to whatever promised security, otherwise he would be lost.  Perhaps that was what was wrong with Joshua.  He had clothed himself with a religion decorated and smeared with everything white.  He renounced his past and cut himself away from those life-giving traditions of the tribe" (141). 
This book is brilliant for so many reasons, and since reading it, I have made it an unofficial goal to read more books by classic African authors this year.  I want to read other things by Ngũgĩ, but next on my list is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, which I have embarrassingly never read.

The final book I want to talk about is a nonfiction book called The Radium Girls by Kate Moore.  I listened to the audiobook on a whim and I was immediately hooked.  Moore's book tells the stories of a number of women who were employed during the early 20th century as dial painters.  They painted the dials of watches and aeronautical instruments with a type of innovational paint that contained small amounts of radium.  Because of the nature of radium, this made the numbers of the dials glow in the dark, making such items invaluable during the first world war.  During this time, radium was considered to be completely safe and even beneficial.  It was marketed as a sort of magical cure-all and was used in hundreds of new products.  The dial painters painted the small watch faces and instruments with tiny brushes, which they placed in their mouths to try and make the point as tiny as possible in order to produce the precise detail their job required.  This method was called lip-pointing and it was used in several factories by hundreds of young women.  The jobs paid well and the girls were assured the practice was completely safe and they could even benefit from investing radium.  Suddenly, however, a couple years after the dial painters began, women started to get sick.  Dentists were confounded by strange cases of women complaining of toothaches.  When the dentists started removing teeth and performing surgery, the women's mouths refused to heal and instead continued to disintegrate.  The unknown disease spread to other areas of the women's bodies, in a seemingly random pattern that completely stumped every medical professional they consulted.  Moore's book documents every part of the women's journey as they began to protest their mistreatment by the corporations that employed them and the country came face to face with the shocking and horrifying radium poisoning hundreds of women experienced as a direct result of working with radium.  This book was so stinking good.  I had no idea about these discoveries or events and my mouth was wide open at numerous instances while listening to this book.  I am passionate about hidden or unknown stories of women in history and that's exactly what this book was.  Moore's research is breathtaking and the way she humanizes the women's experiences and makes them come alive is remarkable.  She portrays these women as the heroes they are: brave, courageous, determined to do what is right, and fearless in the face of the worst odds.  I was by turns moved, inspired, angered, and stunned by this book, and I highly recommend it.  If you are doing Women's History Month-inspired reading in March, put this book on your list.

I have managed to read some great books so far this year, and these are only a few highlights.  I hope my glowing recommendations will move you to give them a try, and as always, thanks for reading.


My Year in Books – Reflections and Goals

Happy New Year!  2018, I am not ready for you, but hello anyway.  In the time-honored tradition of end-of-the-year reflections and goal-setting and the rest, I am here a little late to talk about my last year in reading: what I thought of it, the books that stood out from all the rest, and what I plan to do in 2018 when it comes to books.

First, a few thoughts on this past year of reading.  I don't believe in the importance of numbers when it comes to this sort of thing, but it seems significant this year.  In 2017, I read 55 books, though I finished the year halfway through about five others.  In 2016, I read under 30 books, so the fact that this year that number nearly doubled feels exciting.  I also ended up with a list of firm favorites at the end of the year as I looked back and evaluated.  My reading goal last year was simply to read more and read better, after I ended up rather discouraged with my amount, and I have fulfilled that goal.  Overall, I am really pleased with my reading this year: the number, the range of authors and subjects, and the quality of what I read.  

Second, I want to share a list of my favorite books from the year.  I have eleven favorites, which seems so random, but this list naturally made itself and I decided not to push it.  I posted a whole thread about these books on Twitter last week, giving more detail about them/why I loved them, and you can find that here.  Also, if I wrote about the following books at any point on the blog last year, click the titles to be directed to the corresponding post.  In this list, the books are numbered in order of preference:
  1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  2. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  3. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  4. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  5. Holy Is The Day by Carolyn Weber
  6. Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery
  7. Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich
  8. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  9. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
  10. Coolidge by Amity Shlaes
  11. A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre
Given the fact that I was pleased with my reading in 2017, I don't have any specific reading goals or changes to make this year.  I want to continue to be open to books outside of my comfort zone, or rather, books I would not normally pick up.  Americanah was one such book I read last year and it became a favorite in the end.  While I wouldn't change anything in 2018, I have a few specific books I want to read and I thought I would briefly share those.

First, I have thoroughly enjoyed my unofficial project of reading a long-ish piece of Russian literature each year.  A couple years ago it was War and Peace, this year it was Crime and Punishment, and in 2018 I want to read Anna Karenina.  I loved loved loved War and Peace and Leo Tolstoy’s writing, and after a year of reading Dostoyevsky, I am eager to return to Tolstoy.  Second, and regarding another unofficial reading project, I want to read Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.  In an effort to read the whole of Lewis’s body of work, I have a very loose goal of reading at least one new (to me) book by Lewis each year.  Last year I managed to squeeze in The Abolition of Man as well as re-read three old favorites.  This year I want to read Till We Have Faces, a re-telling of Cupid and Psyche which I've heard many people describe as their favorite Lewis.  The third book I want to read in 2018 is Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses Grant.  I loved his biographies of both Hamilton and Washington, and I am thrilled he has chosen a lesser-known, less celebrated president.  With the page count at over one thousand pages, I will probably choose to listen to the audiobook if I hope to finish it within the year, but I am excited nonetheless.  The fourth book on my list, East of Eden by John Steinbeck is one I’ll try to get to in the summer.  I’ve read Steinbeck before and I have heard from lots of people on the internet that East of Eden is incredible.  Last but not least, I want to read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, a choice inspired by Andrea Lucado’s English Lessons, which I talked about in the last post.  In that book she mentioned reading Roy’s novel and being struck by a character who clearly paralleled Jesus, even though the author herself is not religious.  The way Andrea wrote about the book made me want to pick it up and I am always on the lookout for characters who point to the person of Jesus through fiction.  

And that's it.  Nothing wildly ambitious or creative, just more of the same reading plans and habits that made reading in 2017 so great.  Reading in college, outside of what's required, is definitely a challenge, but I love lugging a book with me to class and reading if I get there early.  This past year it became a habit that created space throughout otherwise full and stressful semesters.  And as a bonus it allowed me to have conversations with fellow students about reading.  Besides all this, though, prioritizing reading through school has helped me keep a bigger perspective about the world and my place in it, as well as simply maintaining my sanity as an introvert.  

As always, thanks for reading and may your reading in 2018 be the best ever.


Recently Read – November + December

Hello!  It's been a while.  This last semester flew by in a rush, and so did the month of December.  I'm a little freaked out by how quickly the next year is approaching.  I'm here today to resuscitate the blog and talk about some of the books I've read the last couple months before my flurry of traditional end-of-the-year posts, however exhausted thinking about the new year and goals and reflection makes me feel.  In November, I read a few things over a week or so of vacation, and I've been making my way through several books on Christmas break.  Briefly, I want to discuss five of those today.

If you've been following this space for any amount of time, you've heard me wax lyrical about Carolyn Weber from time to time, and this year I've managed to finish reading her published works, which makes me both happy and sad.  Her essay collection, Holy Is The Day, made it onto my favorite books of the year list, and I highly recommend it.  Unfortunately, I won't get to talk about it here at length, but I will make mention of it when I share that selection in a future post.  On vacation in November, I picked up her only physical collection of poetry, which combined a couple of collections she had previously published as e-books.  The collection is called Home Going and it was stunning.  I expected nothing less, but it was exactly what I hoped it would be.  Many of the poems are about going home, but there were also poems about seasons, nature, sorrow, glory, doubt, and the faithfulness of God.  Home Going is a beautiful collection, and one, I think, that would satisfy and move even a reluctant reader of poetry.  Here's a bit from a poem called "December 26th," appropriate for these days following Christmas:

And so now, under this sky of slate / the growing starts: / the infant into the child, / the child into the man, / the man who will heal as his own body is pierced, / Who will restore / through his own deposition. / and his mother will again / grieve with the pain / from this re-birthing into the ancient of days / far, far / after Christmas. / This birth and growth and death / common to all, / and yet in one singular case, / the divine and the human / and the Love / are the same, / so relentlessly regardless / of the date. (41-42)

The second book I want to talk about I also read on vacation, though I failed to take a pretty picture of it on the beach.  This one is a memoir by Andrea Lucado (yes, Max Lucado's daughter) about her year of studying English in Oxford, England, called English Lessons.  Gratefully, it was very different from Surprised by Oxford, which stopped me from making any direct comparisons, from which it would have suffered quite a bit given my ridiculous affection for the latter.  English Lessons is more like an essay collection composed of thoughts and lessons gleaned over a year of a life-long Texan girl moving to and learning in Oxford.  While not as profound or poignant as Surprised by Oxford, nor quite so literary or theologically deep, English Lessons still moved me.  Like Surprised by Oxford, English Lessons deals with doubt and faith.  While Andrea Lucado always considered herself a Christian, she battles doubt and a crisis of faith as she is thrust into an environment vastly different from her small-town Christian childhood in Texas.  Through relationships and classes and books, her faith grows slowly but certainly stronger because it was tested.  The last two chapters of the book, both about leaving and growing and goodbyes hit me especially hard.  Goodbyes always strike a deep nerve, and Andrea wrote those chapters beautifully and honestly.  She also managed to portray Oxford vividly in this book.  I could see it and smell it, and so much of the culture and atmosphere came through in her writing.  I enjoyed this book a whole lot and I know I'll reread several chapters in the future.  It was a highly readable memoir and I recommend.

The next book I want to talk about is a Christmas-themed collection of short stories, all of the murder mystery bent, titled The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by English author P.D. James.  I love Christmas and I love mysteries, and so this one had to be on my reading list for December.  It's a short book, but the four stories did not disappoint.  While I wouldn't describe the stories as cozy mysteries, per se, as they were a little darker and weirder than Agatha Christie, for example, these still managed to hit the spot.  The first story is definitely my favorite, as it seems to be the most festive of them all, though how festive a story about murder can be, I'm not sure.  What I enjoyed about most of the stories in this collection was that the endings were somewhat ambiguous and open-ended, which allowed for a degree of speculation on the side of the reader.  I enjoyed this, and if I ever have the chance in the future, I think I'll pick up more P.D. James when I'm in the mood for crime fiction.  While I wouldn't go so far to say that I found a new favorite mystery writer, I did enjoy this collection and would recommend for any future December reading. 

The next book I want to share requires some backstory.  This summer, I read Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment – I know, some summer reading – and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Of course, I had the best intentions of writing about it, because how can you not write about Crime and Punishment, but then school began and I was suddenly underwater for three months.  So, the post didn't happen.  Nevertheless, it's one of the best books I read this year, and I will mention it in an upcoming post.  Given how much I enjoyed it, I picked up The Eternal Husband by Fyodor Dostoyevsky this month and was similarly rewarded.  A much shorter book than Crime and Punishment at almost exactly 200 pages, The Eternal Husband is about love and marriage, and focuses on the relationship between two men – one a former lover of the other's wife – and everything they may or may not know about the other.  It is a fascinating premise and a fascinating story, and I found many of the ways Dostoyevsky talks about love and marriage thought provoking and startling.  Once again, this book attests to the propulsive nature of Dostoyevsky's writing.  I read this book quickly and despite the fact that so little actually happens in the plot besides heated conversations and long walks around the city, I was engaged the whole time.  If you are looking for a way into Dostoyevsy's backlist and don't yet want to commit to his longer works, I think this is a great place to start.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Last but not least, a book I have not yet finished, but already love.  Haphazard by Starlight by Janet Morley is essentially a poetry anthology, spread out and organized to be read over the period of time from Advent to Epiphany.  I've observed Advent for the last couple years, planning Bible reading and other applicable books (last year it was Hidden Christmas by Tim Keller) to read over the course of December.  When I heard this book mentioned in a beautiful post by Sarah Clarkson, in which she shared some of the poetry, I knew I had found my book for this Advent.  I enjoyed the daily structure of this book, and that the author shared a detailed commentary of the poem each day while still letting the selection take precedence.  Perhaps my favorite thing about this book was the way the author organized the poetry to follow traditional themes of Advent as observed by the Church.  My church background is void of liturgy or anything resembling ritual, and so any traditions of the liturgical calendar are foreign to me.  I was grateful, then, that the author highlighted themes and portions of Scripture traditionally pondered during Advent.  The selections in this book do not all come from poets who are Christians – the poets are diverse, and so are the poems.  One of my favorites is from Sylvia Plath, who if at all religious, and I am almost certain she was not, does not reference the supernatural in her poem, "Black Rook in Rainy Weather."  Here is the last stanza: "Miracles occur, / If you care to call those spasmodic / Tricks of radiance miracles.  The wait's begun again, / The long wait for the angel, / For that rare, random descent."  I have loved all of Morley's selections so far, and I already have her anthology to read over Lent.  I highly recommend this book.

Naturally, there are many more books I could include in this post, but these are the ones I wanted to highlight and discuss.  I am having a small crisis thinking about how close the new year is, and when I come to grips with it, I hope to share my annual reflection/looking ahead posts in which I talk favorite books, yearly goals, and reading plans before the new semester begins (HOW???).  As always, thanks for reading.