Recently Read – Summer 2017 Edition

Hello, hello!  Today I want to talk about three books I've read recently that are just so good I couldn't not go on about them.  I've read much more than these in the last month or so, but only wanted to highlight the best of the best, which are these three right here.  Let's get into it.

I have loved the Anne of Green Gables series forever, but only recently realized there were two books I didn't own and hadn't read.  I picked them up this spring second-hand, and thought they would be great for the summer.  I got to them both in the last couple months and book #7 was about Anne's children when they are young and the many escapades they get up to.  While I enjoyed it, I didn't love it.  Rilla of Ingleside, #8, however, blew me away.  This book primarily focuses on Anne's youngest daughter, Rilla, who we did not meet in book #7.  This book is a coming of age story at its finest.  At the beginning, Rilla is a sixteen year old who cares only about catching the attention of boys in town and wearing new dresses.  She has little ambition, and her only goal is to have fun.  However, when World War I begins and shakes up life in the Manse, extending its fingers into every part of the Blythe family, Rilla grows into a woman softened by sorrow and longing and defined by hope and love and courage.  This book surprised me like crazy.  The best way to describe it is like a coming-of-age more serious than Anne's, with higher stakes and deeper emotion.  It made me laugh and cry, and I don't think I will stop thinking about it soon.  Rilla showed me that Montgomery not only can write fun, light, happy stories like Anne of Green Gables, but poignant, moving stories about love and loss as well.  This book was so so good, and if you love Anne, you will love this, too.

The second book I want to share about could not be more different than the first.  Magpie Murders is a newly released mystery novel by Anthony Horowitz (author and writer and creator of the show Foyle's War, of which I am the biggest fan).  I heard so much about this novel that I made the impetuous decision to buy it, full price, from an actual bookstore.  Oof.  With everything I'd heard about it and the dollars spent, I had high expectations, tempered by the fact that the other Horowitz I've read was not great.  Alas, my expectations were exceeded and the book delighted me.  Magpie Murders contains two mysteries, each with their own page numbering: one, an old-fashioned British detective story (in manuscript form) in the beloved tradition of Agatha Christie herself.  The other part of the novel follows an editor at a small publishing house as she becomes embroiled in a mystery that seems inextricably linked to the manuscript that seems to have consumed her life.  This novel is full of twists and turns and all the trademarks of British detective fiction told in a new context.  This book is brilliant, and I flew through it.  If you, like me, love Christie and that whole genre of fiction, this book is for you.  I loved it and have pledged my affection to Horowitz forever.

The final book I have to talk about is also the one I most recently finished, and wow, was it stunning.  Their Eyes Were Watching God is a 1937 novel by Zora Neale Hurston, and it is considered to be perhaps the greatest work of African-American literature of all time.  I began reading this novel last summer, only got about 50 pages in, and put it down.  It was a slow read because Hurston writes a very thick accent for her characters, and not being quite engaged, I got bored.  I picked it up again this summer, determined to finish it.  This is a beautiful book.  It follows the life of a young black woman, Janie, living in Eaton, Florida, and her three marriages.  Within the context of these relationships, Hurston explores the themes of love, independence, and finding fulfillment in another.  This book is a summertime love story with wit and wisdom and heart.  It made me laugh and cry, and the beauty of Hurston's writing at times took my breath away.  This novel contains some of the most beautiful, striking imagery I have ever read, and for that reason alone, I would absolutely recommend.  Here are a couple examples:
"Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought.  She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her.  Then she went inside there to see what it was.  It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered.  But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams.  Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over.  In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further. (Hurston, 72)"
"He drifted off into sleep and Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love.  So her soul crawled out from its hiding place. (128)"
This novel was beautiful and poignant and I won't soon forget it.  I highly encourage you to pick it up.  And, like I found, give it about 60 pages and you'll fly through the rest.

It's been good reading over here lately, and I hope my semi-gushing inspires you to pick up these excellent books!

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Thoughts on Wonder Woman

A few weeks ago, for my sister's birthday, we made an evening of it and went to the theater to see Wonder Woman.  I have thoughts.

Given that it was several weeks ago, the hype has evaporated slightly, and I just want to share a few scattered revelations the film inspired that I jotted down on my phone during the movie.  Yes, I'm that person.  

First, I want to talk about this movie in the context of the conversation around feminism.  (I'm hoping to write a whole, long, researched post about why I'm not a feminist and why I believe it's such a harmful ideology later this summer, so look out for that.)  I was wary about this movie, mostly because feminism is such a huge part of society today, and I could easily see Wonder Woman (Diana) being treated as a female hero who proves men to be stupid weaklings and saves the whole world all by herself.  I feared that this movie would be filled with all of the self-gratifying rhetoric of the feminist movement.  But it wasn't.  This film was done with such grace.  I don't know if it's simply the magic of Gal Gadot (which is very real wow), but Diana herself was a strikingly humble character.  She didn't save the world on her own, not because she couldn't have, but because she recognized the value of each person playing a part.  She is by far the most humble superhero I have ever seen on screen, and the director handled her character with an abundance of grace that was refreshing.  Diana never put down others around her to emphasize her own ability.  She was confident in her power, but not at the expense of others.  

Second, in case you're unfamiliar with the story of WW, like I was, here's what's up.  Diana is part of a group of women called the Amazons (I think) who were set apart by the Greek god Zeus to save the world from the evil god of war, Ares.  That's as much of the plot as I will reveal, again, this is not a review, but yeah, a group of people dedicated to save the world from evil.  If that's not a parallel for something, I'm done here.  Diana is one of the only Amazons who recognizes her role in the world.  When she learns about the war (WWI) taking place beyond their secluded island home, she knows what she has to do immediately.  She keeps this big picture throughout the movie.  She has one job, and she's going to do it if it kills her.  I loved that.  And if all of that is not a parallel to our commission as Christians, I don't know what is.  We are saved to save the world.

There's this moment when Diana and her group of compatriots are hunkered down in the trenches of the Western front during one of the numerous stalemates of the war.  Ignoring the warnings of literally everyone, she climbs out of the bunker and crosses no-man's land.  The movie slows down (as it does many times in a slightly cheesy way when anything suspenseful happens) and she walks across, clearing a path and providing a diversion as the men swarm out after her.  *I cried at this point.*  The thing that kept going through my head (humor me) was that verse in Psalm 46: "God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day" (verse 6).  One thing I am continually aware of is how unconscious I am of the fact that I have the Spirit of God living inside of me.  Like, right now.  And for whatever reason, watching this scene in this movie reminded me of that all over again.  I wrote in my phone: Sisters, we do not know what we are capable of.  And not even just us.  I mean all of us who have the Spirit within us.  We are capable of doing great things, not because we are powerful or wonderful (sorry), but because of Who lives within us.  And yes, yes, I know that's not the point of the film, but I am a firm believer that God works through all mediums and all avenues to teach us and reveal His truth.  

Last but not least, as a woman, I was inspired by Diana's character.  She is the type of character who lifts up everyone around her, regardless of who they are.  When one of the less capable members of her band of soldier/friends almost gives up and goes home, she asks him, "But who will sing for us?" She doesn't put down others because of their weakness, but encourages them in the things they do well.  She has endless empathy for ordinary people.  In fact, there's a scene at the end of the film, when she is battling Ares, and he tries to convince her that the evil, squabbling humans are not worth saving, and she never denies their ugliness or baseness, but she doesn't believe that is a reason not to save them.  Even at the end, she acknowledges that evil is inherent in the human race, but that in the end, Love is the only thing that can save the world.  *Cue opera singing* 

Just see this movie.  The end.


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