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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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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Hodge Podge: Fiction that doesn’t chew its cabbage twice edition

How about a mix of grown-up fiction and read-alouds that are otherwise unrelated? These include some literary peanuts, raisins, and a few indeterminate chocolate-like blobs. Your mileage may vary.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d – Flavia fans will welcome another installment from our witty post-war, British, pre-teen, heroine/detective, and they will not be disappointed. I confess that I was flat out surprised by the ending to this book. I also loved the odd-but-apt aphorism, “Fate doesn’t chew its cabbage twice.” Words to live by.

Commonwealth – This book was…fine. It’s a little odd to say so, since I have loved Patchett’s books heretofore. If you’ve only got time for one by this author, definitely go for Bel Canto (review) or State of Wonder (review) instead.

Lila – I’ve not been a huge fan of Marilynne Robinson up to this point, but Lila grew on me. It became quite interesting to observe how Robinson was constructing the narrative and building the character, but I sort of felt like I was dissecting the book rather than reading it. However, I might try Home next and see if I like the series backwards better than forward.

Crosstalk – Connie Willis is such a fun writer, and manages somehow to balance light and witty writing with deeper subjects and issues. In Crosstalk, she looks at technology and relationships in the not-too-distant future through a story that will keep you reading while also giving you a lot to think about. I feel like you can’t go wrong with any of her books.

Read-Alouds

The Indian in the Cupboard – This is a short, funny read especially good for boys (or girls) who like adventure and girls (or boys) who are fascinated by the tiny-people-versus-big-people genre. We listened to it on audio while driving to and fro. There is a whole series, which the kids own and have read, and which I believe I read as a kid, but I can’t recall enough to know if I should recommend them or not.

Watership Down – So, technically this is not a kids book, but we listened to it as a family on our epic roadtrip-in-which-nearly-everyone-threw-up-for-11-hours. So let’s just say we all remember the story vividly. It’s a good story, if rather long. And since the author originally made it up as bedtime stories for his daughters, I think it’s fine for kids. Plus, you’ll learn a lot of really fascinating things about rabbits. When literature and zoology collide.

The Secret Keepers – We actually all read this separately not aloud, and I read it so I could talk to the kids about it. While we liked the book, it was so disappointingly NOT a Mysterious Benedict book. Of course we knew that going in, but one still hopes. I do like this author and will read anything else he publishes, but we like MBS best.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – The big kids and I have read the Harry Potter books individually (well, actually Sarah has only read the first three) at least once, but Eliza was feeling left out so we decided to listen to one for her sake. The audio versions of the series are just terrific. It was such an enjoyable listen, even though I had already read the book. And the big kids liked it even though Hannah has probably read the book 17 times. I’m not sure if we would tackle the later books with a small kid, but the first and second would probably be fine for younger kids especially if they have older siblings that already discuss the series as if it’s part of their lived experience.

Around the World in 80 Days – I grew up watching the movie of this book, so it’s fun to hear the actual story. We’ll watch the movie for family movie night to contrast and compare. If you’re reading aloud, you might want to skim ahead for terms to change as you go. If you’re listening to audio, it’s a good idea to pause and mention when a book uses descriptions that you don’t want your kids to internalize. It’s not too much, just here and there an old-fashioned parlance or attitude that we don’t hold.

How about you and your family? Have you read any great fiction lately?

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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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