Rather than doing individual posts for each book I read, I’ve decided to do a few longer articles about particularly thought-provoking books, and then one monthly roundup of the rest. I’m linking up to Quick Lit at Modern Mrs. Darcy, where you can find lots of similar posts to inspire your To Read list.
All Quiet on the Western Front is billed as “the greatest war novel of all time” and it may be so. It’s certainly an exceptional addition to World War I literature, and broadened my understanding significantly. I read it as we were studying World War I in our homeschool, and after I had read The Long Shadow, which is a very readable history of the ways World War I impacted the rest of the 20th century (highly recommended).
One of the major strengths in the novel is its portrayal of the changes wrought when young men in the most idealistic phase of life are dropped into horrific realities of war. I’m sure that this happened throughout history, but it’s particularly striking in this novel. World War I was, of course, a really horrifying war–trench warfare plus the first widespread use of more destructive modern weaponry–but the seeming futility of the way it was conducted also had a tremendous impact on the young men at the front.
One of the book clubs I’m in read A Girl Named Zippy last month and otherwise I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. The title and description didn’t really grab me. However, one of the bonuses of book clubs is that they sometimes make you read books you wouldn’t choose on your own and sometimes you’re glad about it. I listened to this one on audio–read by the author–and it was really great in that format. The author’s voice is perfect and her delivery is excellent. The book is funny, poignant, and contains great story-telling.
After reading Before We Get Started and Letters & Life, Bret Lott’s exceptional books on writing, I was inspired to read Jewel, his best known novel. I enjoyed the story, which is a sweeping saga of a woman from Mississippi and how she transcends her background to care for her youngest child, who has Downs Syndrome. Lott writes with great sensitivity and nuance describing family relationships and the tension Jewel feels as a woman greatly constrained by her time period and sub-culture, but also driven to do her best by her daughter and navigate a way to love her husband well without being drowned in the conventions of her time and place.
I really enjoyed the character development in Jewel and would recommend it.
The Book of Speculation has a great premise and strong writing, but fails to explore the issues it raises in very great depth. The book could have been much stronger if it had delved into things like how you can break the cycle of persistent personality types and tendencies, why relationships perpetuate the same tragedies over generations and what to do about it, and how people cope with being different in their social groups. That sounds like a list of self-help book topics, but believe it or not you really can address big issues like that in fiction–and often it’s the best way to address them. Rather than digging in to those topics, though, The Book of Speculation stays pretty surface. People tend to label those they dislike or find different, and in the past this family was labeled as cursed. So, the book says, I guess they are! So they destroy some stuff and move away and voila! Problem solved! Except that’s not actually how life works. It’s how made-for-TV Halloween movies work. After the solid story-telling and great premise, I was ultimately pretty disappointed with how this book failed to deliver. It’s still a good story, but falls a bit flat.
My other book club chose The End of the Sentence as a slightly off-beat Octobery choice. The book plays with the traditional fairy tale genre–that is, the original versions not the Disney-fied takes. Setting a fantastical fairy tale/ghost story in small town Oregon was an interesting choice, and although you can basically see where the story is going from the start it does move really quickly. You can easily read this whole novella in under two hours. As I write this, I haven’t been to the book club yet, so I’m not sure how much we will have to discuss. But since book clubs are good for discussion AND for pushing you to read things you might not otherwise pick up, I’m sure we’ll think of something. I wouldn’t say The End of the Sentence is a must-read by any stretch, but if you need something quick and the genre thing appeals to you, you’d probably enjoy it.
This month I used my friend Darcy Wiley’s Biblestudy on the book of Judges, Relentless, for my personal study and discussion in a Hello Mornings group. Tackling a book like Judges in a six-week study is a big task, but Darcy did a great job of combining background and insight with thoughtful invitations to make personal applications. At several points in the study I was struck by much deeper perspectives on the events I had read about many times before, and I found I was also challenged in good ways to really apply this book of Scripture. Since if you grew up in the church you probably interacted with Judges primarily through flannelgraph, an opportunity to dig deeper may be just the thing. The study is affordable and easy to use digitally (although I printed my copy out of personal preference) and I’d highly recommend it.
Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible discusses how Christians should consume, evaluate, and produce art. I think at the time it was first published, this book probably seemed more ground-breaking. Nowadays I feel like Christians have a better understanding of how faith and art can co-exist, and many also understand that Christians should lead in art, not just produce derivative “junk for Jesus.”
I got some good points from the book, both as a consumer of art and as a writer. However, if you don’t have time to read widely in this genre I might recommend Makoto Fujimura’s Refractions or Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water instead.
Schaeffer’s book is short and to-the-point, and certainly worth your time if you are interested in the topic of faith and art.
Geraldine Brooks’ novel Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague is well reviewed generally, but it wasn’t my favorite. I’m not sure if it’s because I read a lot of historical fiction–especially historical fiction set in England–or just my mood, but I was sort of annoyed throughout the book by anachronistic attitudes in the main characters. I just didn’t buy the way the characters reacted to situations, thought, or interacted. And the secondary characters were often flat and even less compelling than the main cast. Because I didn’t believe in them, I didn’t really wind up caring all that much about any of the characters, which makes a book about the plague hard to like. With so much rich material, I expected this to be a better book. So perhaps it was more of a missed expectations problem, but even so the characterization issues probably wouldn’t have been overcome.
To be honest, Northanger Abbey is not my favorite Jane Austen novel. You can sort of tell this was an early attempt–the story contains a lot of Austen’s trademark aspects, but the story felt a bit forced and it lacked the polish and wit of her later works. One of the book clubs I’m in read this for our November meeting and I don’t regret devoting the time to it, but if you only have time for one or two Austen pieces, I wouldn’t recommend this one.
What have y’all been reading this month? If you have any particularly stand-out recommendations–or warnings to run away–I’d love to hear them in the comments.
Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to check out other review round-ups at Quick Lit.
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