Eifelheim

Here is what you need for your summer reading: an addictive yet literary genre-bending novel combining physics, history, the Middle Ages, faith, personhood…and aliens.

Now that I have lost basically all of you one way or another, allow me to introduce you to your next favorite book: Eifelheim. I loved it, and I honestly think you will, too. If you’re not generally a sci-fi fan, the compelling story and resounding themes will win you. If you’re not generally a literary fiction fan, the history and sci-fi elements will make it worth your while. And if you are a historical fiction reader, you really, really have to read this book.

Thanks to last summer’s excellent (albeit extremely long) reading challenge, wherein I tackled Charles Taylor’s amazing A Secular Age and James K. A. Smith’s likewise excellent How (Not) To Be Secular, I could see how accurately Eifelheim gets into the medieval mindset–the way common people lived and thought about life, God, and science. It’s a far cry from popular conception, and this novel nails it.

It also strikes me that science fiction may be the last genre where you can read a serious exploration of faith in a secular book. Isn’t it odd that it takes aliens to approach topics like salvation? In that way, this book reminded me of Lewis’s space trilogy, which I also recommend.

Although there were a few storylines that I didn’t find satisfactory, overall I loved Eifelheim, and was caught in that terrible place of wanting to race through it while being sad that it was ending. If you’re looking for a fascinating, unusual, well-written book this summer, I think Eifelheim would make an excellent choice.

 

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Different

“What if raising [your different child] is an act of service [God has] called you to? Will you accept him as a gift? Will you submit to the circumstances he brings to your whole family because you believe God is in control? Will you humble yourself and accept God’s will and cease to fight against [your child]? Even if no one else ever sees the battles you have lived through or knows your quiet faithfulness to love him and to believe forward into his life? Your service of worship is not lost.”

I do believe that all children are gifts and special and made in God’s image, so they should be respected and treasured, both in families and the culture at large. But some kids are a little different in one way or another. And whether that’s because of mental illness or physical disability or giftedness or just eccentricity, whenever someone is different from the norm, there is conflict. As a parent, this can be a very intense and difficult thing to navigate.

Enter Sally Clarkson, whose books I have referenced before. People who write parenting books are generally assumed to be perfect, but in her latest volume, Sally took a different direction, writing about her son’s mental illness and how that impacted her life and perspective.

Different is eponymously not the same as Sally’s other books–she co-wrote it with her son, Nathan, who she describes as her out-of-the-box kid. If you have one (or two, or more) of these, you should certainly read the book. While the Clarksons were dealing with diagnosed mental illnesses, I found their observations equally helpful as a parent of intense/gifted kids who aren’t dealing with any particular medical conditions but are different in some unexpected ways. I appreciated Sally’s honesty and encouragement, and would recommend this book if you are parenting a kid who is different in any way.

 

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Mere Motherhood

“[Parenting] is a walk of joy that often includes the tearing off of the old dragon skin one painful layer at a time, made all the worse because you didn’t even know you were wearing dragon skin. No one ever does.”

How I loved this book! It’s an odd little book–sort of a memoir and sort of a parenting book and sort of a manifesto. It’s short, and yet jam-packed with striking observations and insights. It rambles, but in the best possible way. As I read, I really felt like I was having a conversation with the author. You know those wonderful talks where no one is being superficial and you move effortlessly from topic to topic soaking up ideas and connection? This book is like that. Cindy is a reader and a thinker and a mom of lots of boys (and one girl), who are now mostly grown up. I don’t know about you, but I need that perspective right about now. Cindy has such an arresting way of putting things, and a much-needed style that both embraces the depths of motherhood and pushes back on the idea that it’s the be-all-end-all.

Mere Motherhood inspired and perplexed me, and made me cry. Twice. Highly recommended.

 

Note: Mere Motherhood is not available on Amazon, although the Circe website notes that it’s coming soon to Kindle. For now, you can get it from Circe (not an affiliate link), but shipping is high and makes the book really pricey. I happily found it at my library, and would love to own it, should it ever be offered for a lower shipping cost. 

The Gargoyle Hunters

“People respond in unexpected ways when things they love get damaged.”

I’ve been thinking this over. So true in so many ways, isn’t it? You really can’t tell how people–even yourself–will respond to threats, and because I know I’ve lashed out in strange ways before, I think it’s a good reminder to heap grace whenever possible.

In the past several years that has been a common refrain for me–in almost any situation, my default should be to assume the best and give grace. I am by no means perfect at this, but I hope I’m improving. Most likely, grace is an unintended takeaway for the book from whence it came, but there you have the riches of reading.

I really enjoy books written with obvious love for the subject matter. The Gargoyle Hunters is a coming of age story about an eighth-grader from a broken home in the 1970s, but it’s also a paean to New York City’s architecture. It’s an odd and interesting book, touching on a wide variety of issues from history and sociology, and would make a solid summer read. [As an aside, in spite of the narrator’s age, this isn’t a kids book. That’s too bad since my son is really into architecture and this book is full of fascinating facts. Maybe in a few years!] If you’re looking for an engaging story with an unusual topical scaffolding (see what I did there?),The Gargoyle Hunters belongs in your bag. Let me know what you think if you read it!

 

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Hodge Podge: Fiction For the Armchair Traveler

IMG_6466The kids recently entered a contest by building a multi-featured island clubhouse out of Legos. Grand prize? A trip to Legoland in Denmark. Although I knew in my heart of hearts that the chances of winning were nil, I still experienced a moment of panic when I realized that if they DID win, we would have a hard time traveling on expired or non-existent passports. What a relief when some British child won, cutting short my panicked research into the hazards of procuring expedited passports from Chicago.

Although a trip to the hygge-ligt peninsula is out for the forseeable future for a variety of reasons including-but-not-limited-to my aforementioned expired passport, I do still enjoy the sensation of traveling vicariously. Hence this week’s hodge-podge, which is dedicated to international settings.

For Grown-ups:

A Gentleman in Moscow – This delightful book about a Russian aristocrat consigned to life under house arrest in a hotel touches on so many fascinating themes–from how little events can change the trajectory of a life to being gracious with your fate to the importance of respect for people as persons–the constrained setting actually opens up a world of thought and inquiry. I found myself thinking quite a bit about the main character’s approach to change, his past, and his shifting circumstances. “For as it turns out, one can revisit the past quite pleasantly, as long as one does so expecting nearly every aspect of it to have changed.” I highly recommend this novel, and think it would be a great choice for a book club.

And Then There Were None – This fun, romping mystery set on a British island is a fast read with surprising twists. If you’re a mystery fan, or looking for something fairly light and quick, this would be a great choice.

Einstein’s Dreams – I bought this book thinking I was going to a book signing with the author, but the fates conspired to change my plans (which is an elegant way of saying we double booked and I was too tired anyway). Given my investment, I read it anyway. Fortunately, it was short, because I thought it was so-so. While there are some intriguing topics as to time and purpose and how we live our lives, it wasn’t a stand-out overall.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven – I read a lot of World War II fiction, and this was one of the better selections in that genre. The author struck an excellent tone, with a perfect balance of humor, cleverness, and respect. If you’re a fan of the genre, definitely read this one. Even if WWII novels aren’t generally your thing, I suggest it as a particularly worthwhile choice.

Salt to the Sea – In need of still more World War II? This book highlights a lesser-known event–the sinking of the Gustloff–which I found interesting.

For Kids:

Around the World in 80 Days – Having grown up watching the excellent mini-series starring Pierce Brosnan, it was a delight to read this book with my kids. The book, as is so often the case, is far more detailed than the series, and I so enjoyed getting even more of the adventures of the stuffy English gentleman and his hapless French manservant.

Have Space Suit, Will Travel – Out of nowhere, this sci-fi classic became a favorite. I’m not certain it’s a kids book per se, but the main characters are kids, and it’s good, clean fun so I can recommend it. We listened to the book on audio and thought the dramatized (but unabridged) version was excellent.

If you were to suddenly win a trip overseas, is your passport at the ready? And where would you hope to go?

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On Vietnam

MatterhornI should tell you up front that Matterhorn is not a novel for the faint of heart, but I still think it should be required reading. The novel covers a company of US Marines on a brief series of maneuvers during the Vietnam War and delivers a blistering glimpse of how the war was conducted, while also offering a deeply moving account of the bravery and humanity of the soldiers involved.

The book’s author, Karl Marlantes, was himself a young Marine lieutenant in Vietnam, so the detail included is first-person recollection. That’s a good thing, because otherwise I would not have believed it. As I read, I kept thinking there was no way anyone could have survived the conditions. It astounds me that any of these guys lived and that any of them returned able to function in their former lives. How do people recover from living through situations like this? How could these men possibly get over the trauma? Marlantes offers some clues–a very compelling character with deep faith, men who keep their focus on others rather than the futility of the situation, even the author’s act of telling the story.

One technique Marlantes used brilliantly was referring to the Marines as kids. It’s easy to read history and forget that most of the players in wars are teenagers. Through direct reference, comments about high school, and imagery like the kids on patrol drinking kool-aid from their canteens, Marlantes never lets readers forget that the people being put into such unbelievable peril were not that much older than the little boy sitting across from you at the dinner table. This device could easily have slipped into an anti-war morality judgment, but Marlantes has too much respect for the military to do that. Instead, the reminders served to underscore the amazing fortitude and bravery of the kids, while also emphasizing how much was being put on such young shoulders and raising both the tension and the stakes in the story.

Another narrative strength of the book is Marlantes’ description of decision-making on the ground. He shows how the older officers often made decisions based on their experiences in prior wars–on the situations they faced when they were lieutenants in Korea or World War II. They were, in many (not all) cases, fighting the last war–often with disastrous results. At the same time, the worst choices the older officers made came when they forgot what it was like to be on the front lines and started chasing promotions and stats rather than what was good for their men. The best leaders were those who both understood history and stayed close to the human costs of victory. I think this is important to understand even for citizens who are not affiliated with the military–we have a responsibility to understand our history, and also to seek out truth and perspective on current circumstances.

“Intense” is really too light a word to describe Matterhorn–it’s wound so tight that I could only read short sections at a time and couldn’t help exclaiming aloud as thing after thing happened to these guys. I even cried several times–not because the book is a tear-jerker, but because I’m a mother. In an odd way, I was crying for the characters’ moms. I hated the idea that these things were happening to their little boys and they couldn’t be there–of course we can’t protect our sons forever, but I hated the thought of the boys suffering without comfort.

So you might wonder, why did I continue reading this book, when it was so intense and full of tough subject matter? Honestly, I read it because I felt like I needed to–like I owed it to the people who fought and died in the Vietnam War (on both sides) to at least try to understand what they went through. I felt like it would be horrible of me to sit in my comfortable home and refuse to read a book that only described the actual circumstances people experienced.

Although Matterhorn is exhausting and certainly not something you want to pack along for a beach vacation, I highly recommend it. It’s an important book, and it’s important that we add this sort of depth to our usually superficial historical understanding of events.

sympathizer

Also set in Vietnam, The Sympathizer is a more literary novel focused on a half-Vietnamese boy who largely navigates the country post-war–trying to find a place for his allegiance when the Communists, the Nationalists, and the Americans all want to use him and never accept him (being half-Vietnamese is simultaneously too much and not enough, depending on the company he’s in), eventually all turning on him in various ways.

I could have lived without some of the grittier details in the book that didn’t add to the story and seemed placed to check a box for “literary value” or something (I hate that about modern literary fiction, though I prefer the genre on the whole). If you read the book, feel free to skim/skip when you get to those scenes–you don’t need them and won’t miss them.

That said, I think the story was helpful to my understanding of the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and worthwhile for its exploration of themes like culture, belonging, and loyalty.

If you’re reading up on Vietnam, you might also be interested in Thanha Lai’s books – they are for younger audiences, but could prove valuable to adult readers as well.

 

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A basically revolutionary tool for work/parenting/educating/adulting in general

Have you ever tried something that other people swear by, only to find out that it doesn’t work like that for you? Or tried to handle a conflict at work or home and can’t figure out why the other person is responding so oddly?

Personality. People are alike in a lot of ways, but we’re not wired exactly the same. I think the biggest lesson of adulthood, for me anyway, is that I have to be careful not to blindly accept other people’s prescriptions as universally applicable, nor blithely assume that what works for me will work for everyone/anyone else.

ppp-coverThis is why I really like Mystie Winckler’s personality posts and was intrigued by her Practical Personality Portfolio. To be honest, I hesitated over it at first, because I own and have read several books on personality typing and I wasn’t sure if it would be worth the money to spring for a digital resource on the topic.

Friends, it was so worth it. In fact, if I had to do it over again, I would gladly pay twice as much, because it’s an incredible resource. A few reasons why:

  • It’s not organized around a test. I’ve been testing ENTJ ever since college, but I always felt that the description was a little off. For a while I thought maybe I was an ENTP, but that didn’t exactly fit either (I’m way too much of a list-maker/planner to be a P). After reading the portfolio, with it’s organization around functions and struggles and motivations, I was floored to see that I actually fit the INTJ profile much better than anything else. I hadn’t ever considered that since I tend to be a verbal person and am not our culture’s stereotypical introvert. But because the portfolio broke away from the test mode, I could see the difference more clearly and consider a different angle.
  • It focuses on functions. Why does it matter what type you are? Because different types of people work, learn, struggle, stress, and cope differently. Once I started looking at the INTJ materials, I was floored by the fact that many of the ways I was trying to deal with stress were actually causing me stress. I also noticed that some of the things that really discourage me are common discouragements for INTJs–and that was the first time I allowed myself to wonder what would happen if I just…stopped doing things that discourage me? What if I work to my strengths and relax in ways that are truly relaxing to me? Game changer.
  • It illuminates relationship issues. Josh and I were both surprised at how helpful the portfolio is for understanding our children. We were able to easily type even the three-year-old (which we hadn’t been able to do previously, even with Nurture by Nature) and were shocked by how helpful it is to know things like what makes each child stressed, what a stress reaction might look like for that child, and how to mitigate it. I can’t tell you how helpful this has been, especially with school work and with several ongoing sibling conflicts. The portfolio is worth it for the parenting/educating insights alone.
  • It takes a hopeful, positive tone. If you’ve read many personality references, you know they can get a little terrifying. You’re reading about your own type, or how your type interacts with your spouse’s type, or the dire prospects of your child’s type, and you feel tempted to panic. In contrast, the portfolio takes a really helpful, upbeat tone. Yes, every type has conflicts and weaknesses, but you can work through those and work with your strengths rather than kicking against the goads all the time. I really appreciated that aspect of the work.

The Practical Personality Portfolio comes with a handbook, workbooks on learning styles and teaching, typing kids, and functions, and, most critically, a comprehensive reference on each type (mind-blowing–simple, but super effective). I’d get it just for the type reference, but the rest of the pieces were helpful, too. Also, if you get the portfolio, you get access to a members page that has additional resources, FAQ, a discussion forum, and audio and video about personality typing–including one personality chat Mystie did with me!

I’d highly recommend the Portfolio, even if you’re not someone who’s normally into MBTI personality typing. More insight never hurts! And if you don’t love it for some reason, there is a money-back guarantee.

The whole INTJ epiphany is making a difference. Just this morning, when things were nuts and I was getting wound up, what I learned from this resource popped into my head and I could see the situation for what it was–me getting stressed–as well as what I could do to work through it. In the past, I might have eventually realized the stress, but my coping mechanisms were not that effective. The situations didn’t magically disappear, but my ability to handle them gracefully certainly improved.

If you go through the portfolio, I’d love to hear what you learn!

 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Hodge Podge: Memoirs, middle age, and making the most of it

It’s a smallish snack this week, with only two selections. However, they go together in several ways that got me thinking.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street – If you haven’t read 84, Charing Cross Road yet, you absolutely should, and then circle back to The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. In the forward, the book is described as “a charming story of a midlife dream realized.” I loved the tone and writing, and the fantastic (and not generally written about) living the dream in middle age angle. In fact, I got so caught up in the book that I began to forget it was a memoir. Thus, when the ending crashed in and was emphatically NOT what you’d do in a novel, I felt bereft. I still kind of can’t stand that it ended the way it did, although I know it’s a memoir and had to end as the facts dictated. However, I think if I had been writing this memoir having lived it, I would not have been able to handle finishing the manuscript. I would have had to go rectify the situation at once. Then I have to wonder how much agency we really have in changing our stories, and if I only think about things like shifting narratives because I read and write?

If you read this one, please come back and let me know–I’m interested to hear other takes.

Also, if I’m ever planning a trip to London (and I am always planning a trip to London), I will consult this book. I found the author’s itinerary matched many of the things I would want to do.

The Guynd – Thank you, Heather, for the recommendation! I was utterly captivated and fascinated by this account of an American woman who married a down-at-the-heels Scottish laird and how they managed Scottish country house life. Hint: it was not much like Downton Abbey, and rather more like things falling down ’round their ears. The outsider-married-to-an-insider perspective was exceptionally well-suited to the book, and I found I learned a lot, although it was another melancholy ending. As with Hanff’s book above, this whole edifice (or edifices, since the theme is both the marriage and the house restoration) is attempted when the wife and husband are in mid-life, and I do think the middle age perspective is kind of interesting. It’s a whole different thing than the usual 20/30-something-trying-something-for-a-year genre. The late 40s to early 60s viewpoint lends a different flavor and I’m kind of interested in that.

Although I still think that middle age doesn’t begin until 50, which gives me a good 12 years before I hit it (my decision to scrap Proust notwithstanding), I can see that a different era is up ahead, so I’m kind of skirting around poking at it to see what it’s like. Maybe that’s just me.

What are you reading this week?

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Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. When you click through to Amazon from A Spirited Mind and make any purchase, I get a small commission at no additional cost to you. It helps to defray the costs of URLs and hosting. I appreciate it!

Hodge Podge: Life, Work, and Getting Your Point Across

In the mix this week: some thoughts on how we work (not just in jobs), form habits, and communicate.

Deep Work – In this fantastic book, Cal Newport describes how our culture is shifting toward shallow thinking, and the opportunities this opens for people who cultivate the ability to do deep work–that is, who know how to work with innovation, depth, and concentration. Newport discusses how to work deeply and develop focus and also exposes fallacies about what does and does not foster this ability. For example, he describes the idea that kids using iPads in school to prepare them for the high-tech economy is like giving them matchbox cars so they can learn to service a Porsche. Of particular strength are insightful sections on how to reframe the way we think about tasks and how we could approach tools and platforms with a craftsman approach (“Does this help me meet my core priorities?”) versus an any-benefit approach (“Shiny! New! I’ll take it!”). I took six dense pages of notes and was challenged in my thinking on many points, putting several of my take-aways into practice, such as the Roosevelt Dash. “A deep life is a good life.” Read this book. You will not regret it.

When Breath Becomes Air – This startling book is an end-of-life memoir written by a neurosurgeon struck in his mid-30s with terminal cancer. It sounds grim, but instead is hopeful and incredibly thought-provoking. One thing that stuck with me in particular was how Kalanithi’s pre-med background in literature and the humanities made him a better surgeon and more able to deal with the complexities and tragedies of own his life and those of his patients. Highly, highly recommended (both the book and the study of humanities!).

Reclaiming Conversation – This high impact book discusses how modern life is eroding our ability to communicate and relate to others, and offers suggestions for how to repair the walls. I’ve made a note to require my kids to read this book in high school, and would highly recommend it to anyone. Many things in our current culture are stacked against community and relationships, and it behooves us to pay attention and make stronger decisions about connection, empathy, attention, and imagination. This is not an anti-technology book, but rather a framework for how to prevent it from narrowing your world. An excellent read.

The Sweet Spot – In the habits and happiness genre, this book stands out for concrete, workable, high impact suggestions written in a personable, inspiring tone. I put a lot of things from this book into practice, including this year’s motto (Love is the horse) and defining the MDR (minimum daily requirement) for things like exercise to help me break the “well I don’t have two hours so I guess it’s nothing” mindset. Another strength of the book is the emphasis on how to build or repair relationships in small, manageable ways. I really liked this book, and would recommend it.

Smartcuts – The fact is, most of us have to work and get stuff done in life in one or more arenas. So, the author of Smartcuts posits, we should do these things in a smart way. Whether you have a traditional 9-5 or not, many of the tips in this highly readable and entertaining book will help you. Smartcuts demonstrates how the maxims many of us take for granted, like “put in your time” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “10,000 hours of practice makes you good at something” just aren’t true, and replaces those ideas with research-based alternatives.

Average is Over – There are a couple of fascinating points made in Average is Over, although I think they would have been made stronger in an article rather than a book. To sum up, the author argues that in recent decades a lot of people have been “overemployed relative to their skills” (that is, the cost of providing insurance and benefits is more than the value they provide) and that in the near future loads of people are going to fall out of the middle class. Some of the conclusions are fairly obvious but others are interestingly unique, such as the assertion that a key determinant in future success will be self-control. It’s not a bad book, but now you know the gist and you could probably skip it unless you’re just really interested in this sort of forecasting.

What have you been reading this week?

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Hodge Podge: Science Fiction in Translation

I never got into science fiction much until I read Wired For War and realized that good science fiction is where a lot of the thinking about philosophy and response to technology and science happens. And it’s even more interesting when it comes from another cultural perspective. So this week’s hodge podge is, for a bit of a twist, flavored Science Fiction in Translation.

Roadside Picnic – Translated from Russian, this novel had a very different feel from most American works of similar kinds. It was not like the older Russian novels I’m more familiar with, but it did have a distinctive difference…I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but maybe the difference was that Roadside Picnic looks at alien technology in in a more pedestrian and less hero-driven way than an American author might have approached the same premise? The story itself struck me as inconclusive and low on hope, but it was interesting.

The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death’s End  – This fascinating and compelling trilogy was translated from Chinese by two different translators. I loved the way the author wove insights about the history and development of math and physics into the narrative, especially related to what went on in China during the Cultural Revolution. I think what really struck me about the trilogy was the reminder of how often we think of defense and technology in a Western-centric way, whereas there is an equally valid Sino-centric view that results in some completely different conclusions. The books deal with ethical conundrums like what actually underpins our standards and ethics on in the face of unforeseen circumstances, and how and why humanity often defaults to totalitarianism and what can be done about it. In many ways, these books reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, albeit with a different guiding hermeneutic.

On China – Unrelated to science fiction, but concurrent to the Cixin Liu books, I was also reading Kissinger’s On China, and found that it dovetailed well, especially in providing context to historical Chinese perspectives and cultural and academic changes of the more recent past.

What are your favorite sci-fi titles?

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Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. When you click through to Amazon from A Spirited Mind and make any purchase, I get a small commission at no additional cost to you. It helps to defray the costs of URLs and hosting. I appreciate it!