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.