When books are…fine.

If you follow me on GoodReads, you’ve probably noticed that I rate almost everything at three stars. I wish there were more options. Three stars can mean books that were pretty good but not life-changing, or that I’m happy I read but probably wouldn’t re-read. Or they can mean books that were just…fine. Not poorly written or annoying enough to rate a two-star designation, but overall lackluster.

See what I mean? We need more differentiation, or at least a clear framework of what constitutes different ratings.

Then again, it’s just GoodReads.

I need to get better at weeding out the low-threes. Often, it’s the sort of book with potential: I like the author’s other work, or the concept is interesting. But then, it doesn’t deliver. And yet, I keep hoping that it will pick up until, at last, it peters out at the end.

97 orchardIn one recent example, I read 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement. Great title, right? The premise is solid: food history, immigrant history, tenement history…and there were some good moments. I did learn a few things. But, overall, the book read like a lengthier version of an early college term paper. It didn’t feel in-depth enough, there wasn’t enough analysis, and it didn’t read in an original way. So, maybe I went in with expectations that were too high, but I wound up disappointed. It wasn’t a bad book, just not great. I’m not sure at what point I should have cut my losses.

at-home-in-the-world-bookAnother title that I fully expected to love was Tsh Oxenrider’s At Home in the World. I really enjoy Tsh’s podcast, have read her other books, and would love to travel the world with my family. Again, perhaps it wasn’t fair to impose such high expectations, or perhaps Tsh’s book suffered from my inevitable comparison to the similarly themed Mother Tongue (link is to my review).

Unlike Mother Tongue, At Home felt very surface-level, like skimming on top of the travel, the locations, the issues, and the conclusions Tsh and her family experienced on their trip. I was reading the book for inspiration and insight, but instead I kept wishing for more in-depth stories, for richer descriptions, for actual details of off-hand comments.

  • For example, Tsh tosses off lines about how the trip was tough on the marriage relationship. Really? How? I’d be interested to know the pitfalls in case we ever do something like that.
  • She mentions homeschooling on the road with passing reference to Kindles and worksheets. OK, can you let us know how you changed your goals to accommodate the travel, how you managed to fit in school, how you pulled in your travels for history/geography/literature/art/whatever, or what kind of schedule you kept, or how the kids fared academically after the year on the road?
  • We get a glimpse of some sort of existential soul-searching going on, but there is only loose linkage to the travel happening and because we don’t understand the problem, we can’t see how travel helped her wrestle with it. A cursory description of a visit to a spiritual advisor and a walk through a labyrinth is not enough. It seems like if you don’t want to really explore a topic, you shouldn’t bring it up in your memoir.
  • I wanted more detail about the travel itself. How did the logistics work, how did they manage to work on the road, how did they set up for that in advance? How did it work out day to day? Were there times when money dried up or ebbed (a serious reality in contracting and freelance work)? Were there times when they changed plans because of money? Did this cause them any worry? I’m left not really knowing how they made it work, and thus I’m not inspired to figure out my own possibilities.
  • The whole trip felt random. We don’t hear enough about the decision-making part of setting the itinerary. We don’t know why they stayed a short time in some places or other. We don’t really ever get a glimpse into cultures. There isn’t much personal connection. Contrasting that with Mother Tongue, where the whole book is about deep connections and real conflicts and the author wrestling with how her own personality comes out in her travels, I was left feeling pretty blah about At Home.

So it was fine. And I kept reading because I’m hosting the book club that’s meeting to discuss it. But as I read, I kept checking how many pages I had left. If you’re interested in At Home in the World because of the content and premise, I’d highly recommend Mother Tongue instead. And if you’re interested because you’re a fan of Tsh Oxenrider (as I am!), I found her book Notes From a Blue Bike far, far better.

Life is short. Books can’t all be winners. And books can show up at the wrong time for me while being perfect for someone else. Still, I would love to only read high-threes and above. And so I’m pondering how to revise my book selection criteria once again. I’m thinking that if I’m not wowed or at least firmly hooked by page 50, I’m going to let go. If I read much past that point, I’ll feel like I’ve invested too much time to give up. And if I already know after the first chapter, I’ll be ok with leaving then, too.

How about you? Do you abandon books when you feel blah about them, or only when they are absolutely awful? Have you identified any ways to weed out the low-threes on your shelf?

 

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In which we tackle middle school

DSC_0114Long ago, my aunt commented that I might want to use “homeschool” as a blog category rather than “preschool” because someday the children would get older. At the time, it felt like our older three kids were babies and toddlers and preschoolers for approximately 47 years. And then it seemed the younger two were only babies for around three seconds each.

Skewed time perception. It happens to the best of us (cue Simon & Garfunkel song).

Meanwhile, Hannah hit middle school like a Mack truck.

You’re thinking, “Like a Mack truck? Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?” I’m thinking, “Both.”

FullSizeRenderIn many ways, this year is a jump for Hannah, not so much because we switched curriculum (although we did) but because I moved her up into a pretty challenging level of readings. She’s ready for it, and thriving, and I’ve been really pleased overall. Every week she has a checklist so she can do most of her work independently. She chooses one assigned reading from each category on the left, and then is also responsible for what’s on the right (which is a combination of independent work, things she does with me, and things we do together with the other kids).

Every day Hannah and I have a designated hour or so when we discuss her readings, I correct her writing, and we do math and Latin. Here is what she’s up to for school. (Note: We are using Ambleside Online Year 7 with some modifications. I didn’t do Amazon links for the AO books unless I’ve already reviewed them separately.)

History & Geography (all narrated*)

  • The Birth of Britain, by Winston Churchill
  • Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People
  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on Alfred the Great
  • Battle of Hastings, by William of Malmesbury
  • The Magna Carta
  • New Nations
  • The Brendan Voyage
  • How the Heather Looks

Historical Biography (all narrated*)

  • The Life of King Alfred, by Bishop Asser
  • Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by Mark Twain
  • A Heroine of France

Art History (all narrated*)

  • The Story of Painting

Literature & Historical Fiction (all narrated*)

  • Ivanhoe
  • Beowulf
  • The History of English Literature
  • The Age of Chivalry
  • A Taste of Chaucer
  • In Freedom’s Cause
  • History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea
  • The Daughter of Time
  • The Once and Future King

Poetry

  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson (selections)
  • John Keats (selections)
  • The Idylls of the King
  • The Grammar of Poetry

Government/Economics/Citizenship/Logic (all narrated*)

  • Whatever Happened to Penny Candy
  • Ourselves
  • How to Read a Book
  • The Fallacy Detective

Science (all narrated* and all experiments written up)

  • The Elements
  • The Mystery of the Periodic Table
  • The Sea Around Us
  • Eric Sloane’s Weather Book
  • First Studies of Plant Life
  • Adventures With a Microscope
  • Signs and Seasons
  • Great Astronomers
  • Lay of the Land

IMG_6973Free Reading (not narrated, but required reading)

Bible

Language

Math

Co-op (classes meet once a week)

  • Engineering
  • Literary analysis
  • Machine sewing

Other (subjects we do together with the other kids, more in a separate post)

  • More science (The Way Things Work, Apologia Chemistry and Physics)
  • Church history (Trial & Triumph)
  • Citizenship (Plutarch’s Lives)
  • Indiana state history (various historical fiction, biographies, history spine)
  • Literature (Shakespeare play per term–Richard III this fall, daily poetry, poetry memorization, family read-alouds)
  • Artist study (Durer, this term)
  • Composer study (we were doing Telemann and Corelli, but may switch to Kabalevsky)
  • Nature study (using John Muir Laws guide)
  • Piano lessons

Notes on how we do this:

  • If you wonder about the weekly checklist, I break Hannah’s readings up into categories, and she has to read one selection from each category each day–an amazing idea I took from Kathy Livingston. From those readings, she chooses one per day to write a written narration (composition) about, and has to be prepared to narrate (tell back in detail and sequence what happened in the reading and be prepared to discuss issues and themes) each of the others. Once a week, she has to put at least one second draft piece of writing into each of her serious keep-this-forever notebooks: history, literature, and science.
  • Not all books are assigned each term.
  • Yes, I’m pre-reading all of this. Mostly so I can be prepared for daily discussions, but also for my own edification and/or nostalgia!

And that’s Hannah’s sixth grade so far!

Note: This post contains a few Amazon affiliate links, but links to other websites are not affiliated. For more details on the AO booklist, please check the AO website

Hodge-podge: Ancient Rome Read Alouds

Our school year sputtered to an end when the reality of summer swim team gob-smacked us. Fortunately, we already had our required days in (plus three!) and had pretty much finished our semester’s foray into Roman times. Below are the books we read aloud together or which I read in order to better discuss them with the big kids. The big kids all read a ton of other related titles, but I’m only listing the ones I personally read.

The Roman Mysteries Series – I was surprised at how much we liked these books. The author, Caroline Lawrence, puts so much period detail into the books, but without making them feel didactic. So we learned all sorts of fascinating things about daily life in Roman times, but all in the course of rousing mysteries and problem solving. However, I will caveat that I only read the first four, and there were a couple of issues that I wanted to talk over with the kids, like a point where someone drinks too much (and has a terrible headache and says things they regret as a result), and a distressing choice made by one character’s mother. Both incidents were handled tastefully in the book, but really did require discussion. So be aware of that if you choose this series. Even so, I highly, highly recommend these books. The audio versions were great–check your library’s OverDrive app if you’ve got travel upcoming!

The Silver Branch and Outcast – Rosemary Sutcliff is one of my favorite children’s authors, so we snapped up her books about Rome. Actually, the kids read a couple of others and liked them as well, so really you can just look out for this author and be assured that you won’t go wrong. Her characters are complex and well-drawn, action is excellent, and you always wind up with great insight into the time periods covered. Both of these books covered Britain in Roman times, which was fascinating.

Beric the Briton – Another solid choice about Roman Britain is G.A. Henty. Although his books can be a bit slow to start, overall they are great adventure stories. I always look for Henty at used book stores, but you can also find good audio versions.

Detectives in Togas – I didn’t love this one as much this time around (having read it the last time we did Rome four years ago)–it’s not particularly noteworthy as literature, and falls far short of Sutcliff or Henty or Lawrence for historical detail. If you’re short on time, or your kids need an easy-ish read but you’re not that concerned about historical depth, this book is fine. The kids like it as a story.

Julius Caesar – Naturally, we chose JC as our Shakespeare play of the term. We read it out loud together taking parts, and also listened to a dramatized audio version. Although I wouldn’t say it was my favorite Shakespeare play, it was good.

Archimedes and the Door of Science – OK, Archimedes was technically a Greek. But I already did the Greek read-alouds post. So here you go, Archimedes, old boy, we’re sticking you with the Romans. At any rate, this was a great book–a nice mix of biography, history, and science. We really enjoyed it, and would recommend it as a read-aloud or read-alone.

In Search of a Homeland – If you’re looking for a solid retelling of the Aeneid, I recommend this one. It will make more sense if your kids are already familiar with the Odyssey, but is pretty crucial for understanding Roman history, in my opinion. Next time around I think we’re going to go with the real deal, but in the meantime, this retelling is great (side note: the kids also read The Aeneid for Boys and Girls and said it was ok, but they preferred In Search of a Homeland).

The Story of the Romans and Famous Men of Rome – Reading both of these got a little repetitive as we read about the same people back and forth–we should have chosen one and left it at that. However, having read two of these books about famous Romans, the kids and I are SO primed for Plutarch.

Plutarch’s Lives  – So after reading about famous Greeks and famous Romans, we dove right in to Plutarch and I was surprised and pleased to see that the kids were ready to interact with it. Why read Plutarch after we already read about many of these people in other books? That’s like saying “but we’ve read the Jesus Storybook Bible, so we don’t need to read the WHOLE Bible, right?” Plutarch was required reading for most of history, and is really a civics/government primer, as well as a general springboard for discussion about character, leadership, and being a good citizen. We started with Poplicola because that’s what everyone says to do, and because we were familiar with him. Then we just went to the front of the book and started with the first life, Theseus. We’ll go straight through from here on out and eventually we’ll have read the whole phone book. It’s going to be awesome.

SPQR – One last note: this one was not for kids, but I read it as background for myself. It was a slog, but I think that was because I read it on the Kindle app on my phone. That’s a handy thing, but not the best way for me to read/learn. A better reference for ancient times is Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World (link is to my original review, when I read it as background in 2012).

And here we are in summer “break” (or the break it would be, were swim team not in the picture!). I think the year went well overall. I saw a lot of improvement and maturing in abilities. I changed some things, and am contemplating ways to make our next school year run even more smoothly. This was the last year–for a while at least–that I plan for the three big kids to be in the same history/literature time frame. It’s funny. Initially we began combining for history and literature because I couldn’t imagine how I could keep up with three separate eras, or why the kids would want to be alone in one. Now, the opposite is true. I think the kids are in a spot where they need the individual ownership and space. We’ll still do lots of read-alouds together, because that’s just who we are, but we’ll do different independent reads. I’m excited to see how it works out.

Meanwhile, summer reading! What’s on deck at your house?

 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

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.

 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

 

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.

 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

 

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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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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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?

 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. When you click through to Amazon from A Spirited Mind and make any purchase (what I linked or something else), I get a small commission at no cost to you. I really appreciate your support!