Underground Airlines

underground airlinesThis week I read a book that smacked me in the face unexpectedly.

The premise of Underground Airlines is incredibly strong: imagine the present day, complete with modern technology, industry, and trade, but if the American Civil War never happened and slavery was never outlawed in the South. And then imagine an intricately plotted, deeply felt, tautly designed novel about that world.

Of course I wanted to read Underground Airlines for the story, and I know you’d like it for that, too. But I was not prepared for how well Ben Winters, the author, brought the issues home in a way that caused me to think carefully, and perhaps uncomfortably, about my own world.

The book is set in Indianapolis, which happens to be the city in which I live, so that already felt personal. So many things are right on and familiar about the world Winters imagines, and then Winters drops in a grim and startling facet of slavery that jars you in its incongruity. It’s not just the slavery (made infinitely more sickening by it’s modern setting–truly, this is an important narrative to read–history makes slavery feel remote and like maybe there were fringes that weren’t that bad but truly, really, evil is evil all the way down) of the “Hard Four” Southern states that still allow slavery, but the soft racism of the North (this is definitely a thing in our own world–and something that surprised me about living in the North), the deliberate, callous ignorance of people who’d rather save a few dollars on a t-shirt than buy one that was ethically sourced, the smug superiority of freedom activists who still don’t actually care enough about people as people, even as they spout platitudes about injustice.

Underground Airlines would make an excellent book club selection. It’s a fantastic story–fast-paced, full of action and nuanced characters, and a complex mystery that only unravels at the very end. But it’s also a tremendously challenging book from an ethical perspective. We still have slavery in our world (Cheap t-shirts? Cheap coffee? Cheap chocolate? Yes, we’re implicated.), and we still have people who are convinced they are more of a person than someone a different color, nation, or gestational age than they are. And those of us who do care almost certainly aren’t doing enough about it. I don’t even pray about it very often. A riveting, thought-provoking, convicting story. I think you should read this one.

“I don’t know,” he said. “How can we let him live? A man like this?”

“A man like this?” I said softly. “What’re you? What’re you?”

Note: If you’re interested in the topic of modern day slavery, I highly recommend Gary Haugen’s book, The Locust EffectIt’s a difficult read, but a crucial topic.

 

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Hodge-podge: Historical Fiction

In order to move more swiftly through the burgeoning backlog of reviews, I’m resorting to hodge-podging (shorter reviews, no pictures). I suppose this is the literary equivalent of trail mix – small amounts of all sorts of things – some savory, some sweet, and some of those bits you were sure would be chocolate but which turned out to be carob.

Laurus – Much lauded in various quarters, I found this literary historical piece rather…plodding. It’s set in Russia, which is why I expected to love it, but it was more Island of the World-ish than Dostoevsky-ish.

The Flame Bearer – By golly, Uhtred actually moves the ball down the field in this one! If you’ve dropped Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series due to the fact that the last several were essentially the same book, never fear. This one, while following the series formula (of course) does actually advance the story. I say this in love, as Cornwell won my loyalty through his amazing skill at battle scenes and commitment to the more obscure bits of English history.

 

Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen – Ach, come awa’ in! There’s always room for one more novel about Henry VIII’s wives! And when Alison Weir writes one, you know it’s going to be good. This book kicks off Weir’s intended series on the wives, with a fictional account drawing on the author’s extensive historical background. I really enjoyed this one.

The Uncommon Reader – I’m not sure this quite qualifies as historical fiction, but I wasn’t sure where exactly to place it, so here we are. The book follows a fictional modern Queen of England who suddenly and precipitously takes up reading later in life. It’s a short book, and very, very funny, but also a joyful laud to being well-read. Warning: you will probably assume that this is safe for children. And indeed it would be save for one rather startling moment toward the end of the book when the Prime Minister’s secretary breaks through the protocol with a blue comment. Funny is not quite the word, but it was funny for the shock value…but in any case, not suitable if the little pitchers are about so be forewarned if you do this one on audio. Overall a diverting and fun read.

Victory on the Walls – This is a read-aloud we did for school, set during the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. We all liked it, and I was particularly impressed with the depiction of contrast between Susa and Jerusalem and the connections to what was going on in other cultures. Not as good as Joanne Williamson’s books, but it’s a high adventure, boy protagonist story, if you’re in need of one.

What’s in your hodge-podge file of late?

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Hodge-podge: Books for Kids and Adults

This weekend, I surveyed the double layer of books on my To Read shelf and elected to thin the herd. It felt great to lift some of that pressure, self-inflicted though it is! Although I’m preferring the topical round-up style reviews lately, I thought I’d throw out a hodge-podge in case it helps anyone clear out an overfull shelf, or gives some ideas for kids books to add to your audio queue for upcoming over-the-river-and-through-the-woods jaunts.

First, a few kids books of note:

Alice In WonderlandAlice in WonderlandThis classic is probably worth owning in print if you don’t already, and it’s also quite inexpensive on Audible. We listened to the audio version through our library’s Overdrive app and enjoyed it. It’s a great mix of silly and bizarre and rhymy so it works for all ages. It’s also a lot shorter than I remember.

The Island of Dr. LibrisThe Island of Dr. LibrisI expected to like this book more than I did, given the premise of kids encountering book characters coming to life. But often I just wondered, why these books? Why these characters? Some seemed normal for kids, while others seemed needlessly linked to grown-up books, so it’s not like the kids who read Dr. Libris would then go out and read the adult books. It just could have been better. It was fine as an audio book for the car, but nothing extraordinary.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid LindgrenPippi Longstocking – Although it’s obviously a classic, do yourself a favor and get your kids the paper version rather than subjecting yourselves to the audio book. From a parent’s perspective, Pippi is just so annoying. I could not wait for the book to be over. It’s a little odd, since I remember liking the book as a kid, and my own kids have read and liked the book. I guess it’s just one of those things, like how adults read Little House in the Big Woods and can’t get over how much work Ma had to do, when kids are only thinking about wanting a pig bladder balloon. Anyway.

Stone-Fox-John-GardinerStone FoxThis short book packs in a great story of adventure and sacrifice, with some good topics for conversation. It also has a shocking ending (at least it was shocking to us) so be forewarned. It was a great audio book to listen to, but would be a good one to own as well.

 

mrs_piggle_wiggles-farmMrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm – You really can’t go wrong with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. We’ve enjoyed all of the series (at least the ones we’ve found so far) both in audio and paper versions. This volume is no exception to the pattern: kids with bad habits or character issues are taken to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, who gives them some natural consequences or otherwise helps them to figure out how to change their habit. I like the emphasis on the child having to do the work to change, but the adult being there to help.

Now, on to the books for grown-ups:

nature-anatomy-coverNature Anatomy – We used this book as a read-aloud for nature study, but I thought it could just as easily be something an adult would want to pick up to peruse. The author did a lovely job of hand-drawing bits of nature from rocks to birds, animals to plants, and then hand-lettered in interesting facts and scientific names, with some typeset information and grouping by category. This is what a nature notebook could look like if you were an artist and naturalist for real. We found it inspiring and quite informative.

strong-and-weak-andy-crouchStrong and Weak – I wanted to like this book more since I did really enjoy the author’s previous book, Culture Making, and named it as one of my favorites from 2009. But this one just didn’t really stand out for me. It was fine, but I didn’t come away from it feeling particularly challenged or inspired or with new ideas about flourishing. I think your response might depend on how much culture-shaping type literature you’ve read.

becoming-brilliantBecoming Brilliant – Having received an advance copy of this book, I was somewhat sad to find that I’m really not the target audience and I honestly didn’t enjoy the book. For one thing, I felt that the authors’ views on issues like giftedness, the point of education, and educational methods ran counter to what I have read, researched, and experienced, both as a student and as a teacher. For another, the information is presented in fairly dry book report fashion rather than as dynamic new ideas, and I’ve read most of the information in other sources before. Not all of the ideas were really all that supported by research (for example, the actual outcomes from learning via screens). The good ideas also tend to be geared toward classroom teachers, rather than towards parents or homeschoolers–involved parents and homeschoolers are almost certainly already doing the things the authors describe to ensure their kids develop well. In thinking about who should read this book, I decided that it would be good for policymakers in government who have no background in educational issues, but who find themselves needing to get up to speed fast. If that’s not you, skip this one.

games-for-writingGames for Writing – I have a child who is a reluctant writer. It’s not that said child CAN’T write, because said child enjoys attempting intricate calligraphy and keeping notebooks full of random facts about various topics. However, said child LOATHES writing assignments. I have tried Oh So Many Things. What is working for now is reminding myself to take a deep breath because this is only elementary school and there are plenty of years in which to tackle the sort of writing required in college. Meanwhile, I’ve been using many of the writing prompt ideas from Brave Writer, and also several I found in this little book.Games for Writing is geared toward early elementary, but I’ve been beefing it up a little bit so that I can use it with all of my big kids (2nd, 4th, and 5th grades) together. In general, I still think the copywork to written narration to analytical essay path is correct, but sometimes it does help to get there via a meandering path rather than a straight blaze. If you’re in the same boat, maybe this will help.

What’s been in your hodge-podge lately? Have you cleared anything of note (good or bad!) from your To Read shelf lately?

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Two awesome read-alouds (plus ancient Greece)

hittite-warriorThis fall we stumbled upon a terrific author whose books made terrific read-alouds and were then subject to much sibling negotiation as everyone wanted to re-read (and re-re-re-read) them on their own as well. Joanne Williamson did a tremendous job combining excellent storytelling and character development with detailed and fascinating historical research in her books Hittite Warrior and God King.

god-kingWe read the books as part of our history/literature studies, but they are such great adventures that anyone would enjoy them as stand-alone books. Hittite Warrior takes place during the time of Judges and ties in to the collapse of the Hittite culture, rise of the Philistines, and loosely touches ancient Greece. God King is a fascinating account of Egypt during the time of King Hezekiah in Judah and the rise of Assyria. Both books are well worth owning, although difficult to find. Check your library, and if you ever see Joanne Williamson’s other books, snap them up!

I tend to follow a literature-based lead for school books, and so I’m looking for good writing, excellent illustrations, and a storytelling (versus textbook or encyclopedia) feel. We do get reference books on the side, but not for our main focus. Here are a few other books we liked in theras-and-his-townour ancient Greece reading.

Theras and His Town – This novel is a bit light, but we enjoyed the story and the contrast between Athenian and Spartan cultures. It’s a good read-alone for elementary kids, and worked out pretty well as a read-aloud too.

daulaires-greek-mythsD’Aulaire’s Greek Myths – I like this version much better than other options for myth retellings. It’s also the book used in the National Mythology Exam, if you’re into those sort of tests (I’m not sure if we’ll do that or not–it’s the same group that runs the National Latin Exam). Anyway, the D’Aulaire’s always do a good job with stories and illustrations.

one-eyed-giantThe One-Eyed Giant (and the rest of the series) – Kids who like Mary Pope Osborne’s style will enjoy this series. We listened to the first one on audio and then the kids read the rest on their own time. Note that this series is available in two different formats–one that seems to be geared for libraries and another that comes in only two volumes and is for…regular people? Just letting you know in case you pick them up at a used bookstore and don’t want redundancy on your shelves!

golden-fleece-columThe Golden Fleece and the Heroes Before Achilles – You’ll start to feel the repetition if you do a lot of these readings, but Padraic Colum does a pretty good job of preserving Homeric phrases kids should know, like the rosy-fingered dawn, grey-eyed Athena, wine-dark sea, and so forth. Colum wrote other books on Greek mythology and the epics, so you may want to look for those as well.

famous-men-of-greeceFamous Men of Greece – Honestly, this one is a little dry, but the sections are a good length for a daily narration habit, and it does have good illustrations. I’d skip it if you only have younger kids, and might suggest assigning it for older elementary kids who are working on narrating their independent reading assignments.

wanderings-odysseusThe Wanderings of Odysseus and Black Ships Before Troy – These excellent retellings of the Odyssey and Iliad, respectively, are well worth owning. Pro tip: be sure you’re getting the larger format book with the illustrations. I accidentally wound up with paperbacks that omitted the pictures and the kids were none too pleased. We’ve read several of Rosemary Sutcliff’s works and have black-ships-before-troyloved all of them, so that’s another author to add to your look-for list.

The kids read a ton of other books from this subject area, but I didn’t keep up with all of them. It’s been fun to circle back to the ancient world with older kids and see how much they remember from four years ago!

A Quick Note About Book Shopping: In previous years, Amazon has put out several high value book coupons between Thanksgiving and Christmas. If I hear of any, I’ll link them on Facebook and in the weekly Bookmarks email. If you come across any great book shopping codes this season, please let me know!

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A fun pair of books for gifting & discussing

Don’t you love that moment when you’re reading a book and you notice a subtle nod to another book or author? I think that sort of thing is fun. That’s why I quite enjoyed Val McDermid’s retelling of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, even though I didn’t overly care for Austen’s original the first time I read it.

Val McDermid's Northanger AbbeyThe key to enjoying a retelling, though, is having read the antecedent. So I would suggest that you breeze through Austen’s Northanger Abbey first. As I read McDermid’s book, I asked myself if I would have liked it as well without that background, and I decided not. I would have missed some of the funny and clever ways that McDermid called back to Austen while pulling the story into the modern day. In fact, reading McDermid’s Northanger Abbey created a bit of a halo effect for Austen’s, so in all I wound up thinking of the story more fondly than I might have had I only read one or the other alone.

As we’re coming up on Christmas, I thought this Jane Austen's Northanger Abbeypairing would make a great gift–I could see giving it to a variety of people from teen on up. As long as the person likes the classics and doesn’t feel attacked by poking a bit of fun at modern vapidity I think it would be a great present to foster discussion. Both books are available in several editions including the economical one penny options, so it’s not the sort of thing where you need to really weigh whether or not the books are investment literature (they aren’t, really, just fun–but those are good gifts too).

Do you have any favorite classic retellings? Have you ever done a book share/club/discussion/gift exchange with a classic and a retelling as a pair?

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Must Read Masterpieces

Yesterday we had lunch at a place where you can purchase amateur oil paintings of local scenery. Anyone can run in to a craft store and pick up a canvas and some art supplies for a reasonable sum. At our zoo, you can purchase modern-esque works of art made by the zebras and giraffes.

When I go to museums, I love to examine art more closely. If anyone (including elephants) can make art, what sets a masterpiece apart? Usually the technical aspects of detail, color, structure, and concept come together as a masterpiece because of the way the artist combines them into a striking way of viewing the world.

Similar distinctions apply to literature. Books are everywhere, but sometimes you find one that truly belongs in the literary museum. Thanks to a book club, I recently stumbled upon two such novels.

life-after-lifeThe group had a great conversation about Life After Life–it’s nuanced descriptions of World War II and its aftermath as experienced by Britons at home, it’s memorable characters, it’s compelling narratives, it’s unique structure that we couldn’t quite figure out–and one attendee mentioned that she had read the author’s next book which, while not a sequel, seemed to finish out the author’s thought.

So I picked up A God in Ruins and was amazed. Life After Life is excellent, but A God in Ruins is a masterpiece. Unlike some literary fiction, the story and pacing are riveting. Unlike most standard fiction, the characters are arresting and deeply developed. And unlike almost every other novel available, the structure of these books, which you can only appreciate fully as you end the second one, is intricate and astounding. The structure of the books is not a stunt or some annoying attempt at highbrow slight of hand. Rather it’s an entire narrative structure driven by an idea that really does only become clear at the end of the second book.

a-god-in-ruinsAs I finished A God in Ruins, I actually burst into tears–an action to which I am not prone. I was that wrapped up in the main character, but somehow also, by extension, had been wound into the lives and legacies of everyone impacted by World War II, and was simultaneously staggered by the complexity and richness of what the author had achieved. I wanted to go back and reread the novels immediately with the understanding of the full scope of the stories, and then wanted to read them a third time to examine how on earth the author had pulled it off–the way that you stand back from a painting in a museum to get the full scope, then come closer to examine how the artist accomplished it.

If you have any interest in World War II at all, any affinity for great stories and characters, or any interest whatsoever in how stories are told, you should read Life After Life and A God in Ruins immediately. Put them on your Christmas list. Get them from the library. Borrow them from a friend. But do read them both–while either book would stand alone, together they are a truly excellent and thought-provoking masterpiece.

 

Side note: Life After Life has a section that I found difficult to read, and many readers might be tempted to close the book at that point. Just know that you don’t need the section to understand the story. I wish I had noted the page numbers, but do skip over it and pick back up with the next section so you don’t miss out on the rest of the book.

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Burial Rites: a historical novel to challenge your views on justice

burial-rites-hannah-kentWhat does justice look like in a stratified society? Are we really as just as we think?

Can a novel in Iceland in 1829 illuminate our biases and challenge us to apply justice better in your own time and place. I think so.

In Burial Rites, Hannah Kent writes beautifully about the stark beauty and harsh way of life people of all social classes endured in 1800s Iceland. At the time, Iceland was a colony, with even the highest social levels subservient to Denmark. Perhaps because of that structure, class lines were very clearly marked–who was superior to who, who was allowed to marry and when, what sort of life you were allowed to lead–even though the top strata didn’t live so far above the lower classes.

The book’s main character, Agnes, is based on a real woman who was executed for murder. Throughout the story, the reader learns more details about who Agnes was, how her life developed, and who was involved in the crime even though only Agnes paid the price. I think the author did a great job of raising questions about justice that could easily be applied to any culture and time:

  • Does everyone receive equal justice? Or do some circumstances and traits change the verdict?
  • What role does truth play in the justice system? And who are we willing to hear from in the process?
  • How is mercy applied? Who deserves it?
  • If we aren’t part of the justice system directly, how do our responses to sensational stories and reactions to class and personal details reveal us to be just or unjust?

In our time and place, the questionable qualities might not be illegitimacy or being a servant. But there are points of prejudice in any society, and you probably know what they are for your area. Here are a few things I found to think about as I read:

  • In Burial Rites, the “good” family who initially judges Agnes lives in a tumble-down sod shanty. They are not so many rungs up the ladder themselves. We are sometimes quick to judge others when we aren’t so much on the high ground ourselves.
  • The story traces the interplay of the Icelandic sagas (old hero tales) with more recently acquired Christian beliefs. The question of how faith integrates (or fights with) national identity is a deep and fascinating one.
  • The broader community is complicit both in Agnes’ crime and her execution. As a society, our role in pursuing justice is bigger than serving on a jury every now and then. I don’t have conclusions about this, but I’m still thinking about it long after finishing the book.

Aside from adding Iceland to my travel bucket list, reading Burial Rites taught me a lot about a time and place I didn’t know much about previously, and also gave me a lot to think about in terms of my own biases and how I can better pursue justice. Although parts of the story are difficult to handle, overall I think the writing was strong, the story was compelling, and the narrative was worthwhile. I’d recommend Burial Rites for people interested in the area, the time period, historical mysteries, cultural and sociological issues, and historical fiction. It would also make an excellent book club selection due to the volume of issues ripe for discussion. Many thanks to Sheila for the recommendation–I’ve linked this post to hers.

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A solid historical fiction audio book

new-york-book-rutherfurdAfter finding his novel Sarum exceptionally overlong, I didn’t think I’d give Edward Rutherfurd another chance. However, I think I’ve found a better way to deal with the crushing length of his saga style–audio books.

The things that bothered me about reading Rutherfurd were his not giving me enough story where I wanted it but too much boggy detail where I didn’t want it, and also his penchant for tying multi-generational characters together by giving them shared characteristics (as in “oh yes, this is the family who is stingy”). These factors probably were present in his novel New York too, but since I listened to it instead of reading it, they didn’t bother me at all.

As is Rutherfurd’s way, New York traces the intertwining stories of several families from the earliest settlements in New York City through roughly the present day. I listened to the book while exercising or when I was in the car by myself, and although it was something like 37 hours of audio (less for me, since I listened at 1.75 speed), I managed to follow the story line pretty well and stayed interested.

Audio books are tricky to choose. For many non-fiction books I prefer a physical volume so that I can mark places and take notes. Most of the time I prefer fiction in hard copy so that I can savor the words and structure. But in the case of New York, I think the audio version worked well because it’s not a work of fantastic literature, and hearing it helped me to avoid being annoyed by the pacing so I could enjoy the story.

To find New York (or another audio book), check if your library has OverDrive–I love this app for free audio books I can play through my phone. Or, you can sign up for a free trial of Audible and get two free audio books. Just remember to cancel if you don’t want to keep adding to your audio book library!

What books have you listened to lately?

 

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Reading the new Harry Potter out of order

readnewharrypotterbookA classic bookworm dilemma presents itself:

Sarah, age 7, has read the first Harry Potter book, but not the rest of the series (yet, Sarah would have you know, she has not read the rest of the series YET).

And now, after waiting for a veritable plethora of people in line before us to read it first, we have finally received the new book from the library.

Because I am the mom and I drove us all to the library to collect it, I got to read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child first. Since it’s a script and not a novel, that only took about an hour and a half. Hannah and Jack followed with alacrity.

Then the debate commenced. Should Sarah read the new book, having not yet completed the series? In case you or someone in your household faces the same conundrum, here are our thoughts on the matter.

  • The new book is a play. As previously mentioned, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is not a novel, but rather a play. Thus, it is shorter and contains fewer details. So kids who weren’t ready for the detail of the whole series or adults who weren’t ready to commit the time could easily handle it.
  • The new book was not exactly written by J.K. Rowling. If you’re one of these purists who can’t stand to break rank with a series (one of the children here stands with that camp), knowing that the play is based on a story by Rowling but not technically written by her may help you overcome your reluctance to read it out of order.
  • The new book includes familiar characters, but takes place decades after the original series. Because the timeframe is so different, you won’t miss details or episodes the way you would reading one of the first books out of order.
  • The new book does contain spoilers. Several parts of the play do refer back to previous books, which could spoil the suspense when you do get to the original series.
  • The new book is really not as good as the original series. We hate to say it, but the play has faults. Ron is portrayed as a dufus. Several characters were missing or written a bit incorrectly in our opinions. The play lacked the same depth of theme and language we liked in the original series. So if you haven’t read the novels, we wonder if the play might sour you on the series.

After much conversation, we left the decision up to Sarah. We hope our lengthy deliberations may prove illuminating to you in your own decision about whether or not to read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child out of order. Let us know what you decide!
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The Light Between Oceans

oceansI saw a commercial for the movie version of The Light Between Oceans and found the premise intriguing, so I decided to read it.

The setting is great. It’s Australia after World War I, plus the fascinating idea of manned lighthouses on remote islands. The thought of living with your family on an island and only coming into contact with the outside world via boat every few weeks and shoreleave once a year is pretty wild. I thought the author did a good job of coming up with the setting, although I wished for more detail. Every now and then I caught myself thinking, “Oh right, they’re in Australian, hence the seasons are flipped” rather than really feeling I was there. Setting is very difficult to do well, and when it’s done well, you almost don’t notice it.

The story premise–lost baby washes up on the lighthouse island with a dead man in a rowboat, childless couple decides to keep it instead of alerting anyone on land, and somehow doesn’t hear that a baby went missing and the mother lives in the same small town on the mainland–was a bit of a stretch on a number of counts. Even in the days before ubiquitous information, I found it a little hard to believe that in a small town no one did the math for four years. I wished that the author had made the story circumstances more nuanced–she could have made it more of a mental illness issue and explored how a loved one might protect the ill person by covering for her. Or there might have been more uncertainty about the child’s role in the family. Or…something.

The writing was good in parts and fine overall, although sometimes felt forced, as though the author was trying really hard to be literary, rather than just being literary. That’s probably just me being picky.

I kept reading the book for the setting and it wasn’t terrible. I gave it three stars on GoodReads, which is what I give most books. Still, if you’re interested in Australia as a setting rather than child stealing as a story theme, I think A Town Like Alice, The Road From Coorain, or (maybe, with some reservations) Oscar and Lucinda would be better.

I do think I will see the movie when it comes out, and it will be interesting to see which format turns out better.

If you’ve read The Light Between Oceans, what did you think?

 
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