Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Book Review: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read The Scarlet Letter as a Junior in high school: American Lit.

No one had previously bothered to tell me that classics endure because they are so readable and have something to say that is worth listening to, so I procrastinated and read ... er ... skimmed it at the last minute and was shocked that I kind of liked it.

I kept meaning to re-read it. 30 years later, I've now done so via audiobook.

I still enjoyed it.

I found that even though I remembered few of the particulars regarding the story, those that I did remember and/or had been reinforced in general other reading made this effort that much more interesting. Hawthorne's masterful use of foreshadowing and understatement, his turn of phrase, his reading of human nature all made this listening one that I wanted to continue on to completion.

You may not agree with Hawthorne, you may find his narrative dark and uncharitable to the townsfolk, but the rewards of doing right (after having done wrong) vs the ravages of guilt vs the wages of revenge are clearly displayed in the story. It is classic American lit and ought to be read and revisited.

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Friday, October 02, 2020

Book Review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World


Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern WorldGenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed listening to this.

The reader was very good. The text was enthusiastic and interesting. The production was generally well done (but occasionally annoying - music from nowhere and a reminder that this was from Audible -which wasn't a surprise as I was listening on the Audible app). The author himself reading the afterward was a personal touch.

The title was perhaps more ambitious than could be proved. There were many ideas that the Mongols implemented in their society - from their means of warfare to paper money to near universal education. Trade, goods and commerce, transportation all expand the world. Ideas cross from country to country. The ideas of the herders vs farmers, rural vs urban, unsettled vs settled all the way back to Cain and Abel as pointed to by the author are interesting to consider. However, Weatherford asserts that these things are a direct line from Mongol culture to modernity ... and doesn't show us how, entirely.

Just because another people did something ... doesn't mean that it is why we do so. Even within 2 generations Kublai did things very differently from Genghis. The trouble of rural vs city dwellers is that the transition from one to the other is very easy - within 2 generations Kublai is an urbane city dweller in a very different caste from Genghis as described here. The forbidden city of the Mongols may be like a city of Mongol Ger, and they may live like Mongols, but they're also becoming a very sophisticated urbane people with education, law, economics, international politics, and all the rest.

The road is neither straight nor wide.

It's a creative idea that the renaissance is more Mongol than Greek and Roman, and there may be some pieces that make that true. The destruction of the black plague - and it's continued existence today in Mongolia - were a fascinating exposition of a more global society than we might previously have considered.

Weatherford's discussion of religious factors is fascinating. He comes across as very cynical and occasionally sarcastic related to religion - from Hindu, Islam, to Christianity. The comparisons sometimes are digressions specifically denigrating the practice of religions in other places without much nuance, IMO. We can all judge religious oppression from our modern lens, but I'm not sure all of the statements here are fair.

Clearly, Weatherford has a great love for his subject and is very knowledgeable. I appreciate his disdain for the 19th and 20th Century excesses regarding the alien: use of the term Mongol in really inappropriate ways; the oppressive regimes which tormented and culture-cancelled, de-linking a people from their history; and a general disregard for and destruction of history.

Some bad, mostly good, and definitely an engaging read.

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Friday, September 25, 2020

Book Review: World War One by Norman Stone

World War One: A Short HistoryWorld War One: A Short History by Norman Stone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I finished this as part of my Schole Sisters 5x5 challenge topic of World War I.

There are absolutely flashes of brilliance in this book, including the entire final chapter "Aftermath."

I think part of my problem with this book is that I'm less intrigued by the battles and military specifics than I am by the thinking and thematic trends that lead to the war and the decision making and how it affects the battles. Stone tries to give us that, but I often found myself mired in artillery numbers and passages that probably well explicated specific maneuvers and derring-do, without greater military understanding, went over my head - and his writing style, here, didn't help me find firm footing.

Following individuals in such a mire was tricky at best and remembering which commander did what became more convoluted. I think next WWI book, I'll have to make myself a chart.

That said, I have a much greater understanding of just what went on from this short (190 pgs!) book covering the before, beginning, war, and after. I think I can move on to something with greater depth after this particular reading. I see he also has a World War Two book, a topic which I'm significantly more conversant in and I wonder if I would like it better simply because I have better background. I suspect that is the case. I'm tempted to have a matched pair.

Stone does a good job showing the transition from a 19th Century war into a 20th Century one and the growing pains that both sides went through as they struggled to figure out how to use the technology and mechanization. Not just utilize, but develop and manufacture such.

He also does a good job of showing the disenchantment both sides began to feel - along all of the fronts - for the war and glories of war itself. The disillusionment of all parties is mentioned from time to time but really developed in the Aftermath chapter when dealing with Armistice, Retributions, the German people, and Hitler's reflections thereon.

I enjoyed his writing style, the occasional sly remark, except when it left me confused. This is really worth 3.5 stars, but I'm not sure I could give it 4, so 3 it is in the GoodReads economy.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Book Review: Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Cry, the Beloved CountryCry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is one that will stay with me.

It defies the descriptors - beautiful, yes, but spare; evocative, yes, but universal; finely wrought, yes, but poured out in one extended cry for justice.

Paton weaves together parallel lives; an odyssey or two (physical and spiritual); lost sheep and prodigals to teach us of place and identity and cultures in a way that haunts and convicts and leads us to do more.

Paton explores ideas of justice, politics, economics, religion, and culture. Sometimes, they seem like expositional asides - mines, stock market, etc -, but always they tie back into the story and the choices the characters make.

Paton's structure was perfectly executed. From following Kumalo in Book I and Jarvis in Book II; their own paths to discovery how best to serve their beloved South Africa and their people. Book III the drawing them together. Yes. When Kumalo's and Jarvis' paths cross in Johannesburg, yet not in their common home region, the reader feels the weight of the separation of communities. Separation and non-interaction is the problem. The two strands are woven.

It isn't a long book, each chapter is easy to approach, but it is a feeling book. I ended with 50 pages to go and tears streaming down my face. There are ends and there is hope. There is despair and there is a sun.

This is a book that leaves one aching for reconciliation and believing that it is possible.

5000 stars.

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Thursday, August 27, 2020

Review: Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary OliverDevotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver by Mary Oliver

I finished this today.

I understand that these are Oliver's personal selections for anthology from a lifetime of writing poetry. Presented in reverse chronological order (newer poems first), I definitely preferred the newer, beginning poems to the older ones at the end. In fact, my favorite was the very first in the book. I've returned to it a number of times over the last year.

I'm sure there's a great deal here that a re-read would improve, but I think I'll save that for another time. I just read a poem or four for most of the last year (there were days, even weeks that I did skip). I'd like to get more in the habit of reading one poem a day and this was a good way to ease into the practice. Very approachable in general.

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Monday, August 10, 2020

Fighting Gravity

 We don't actually have a lot of real hills in Central Ohio.  I took an hour long walk in the neighborhood this morning and Strava tells me I had a 39 foot elevation gain.

The local state park where we do most of our hiking has slightly more varied terrain. It's around a reservoir and there are ravines and water inlets where we have to walk down and then up, but still an hour and twenty minute hike on Saturday had only a 323 foot gain.

That isn't to say that I look forward to the uphills, slight though they may be. I don't.

I've found that going uphill, fighting gravity, the best thing I can do is focus on my feet and the steps right in front of them, looking down and power through. I've learned that momentum will carry me uphill and to the top, but if I stop I have to rebuild the momentum and willpower to carry on.  At the top, I can look back to see what I missed, but stopping mid climb is always a bad idea for me. My legs will hurt, my breathing will be heavier, but still there's an accomplishment to making it up the hill.

I was "uphill" here, Promise.

What surprises me is that I have to fight gravity going downhill too. In some ways walking downhill is more treacherous than climbing the hill. I don't want to put my head down and lean into it, I want to lean back and that requires different muscles and a different kind of footing to make sure I don't gain momentum and end up barreling downhill in an uncontrolled manner. My legs will still hurt, my concern will be foot placement, but I can see the context a little better going downhill.

A hard book often works like going uphill.  Sometimes you need to just watch the step ahead of you and power through. Sometimes you need to let the momentum carry you through the sentence, paragraph, section, or chapter. Sometimes even through the book. Sometimes you need to just get one idea from the first read of a challenging book. The surrounding context, the allusions, the figuring out of each sentence and nuance will bog you down so you stop and can't move forward. 

That has happened to me more times than I can count. I think of The Abolition of Man and how it took me 4 readings of the first essay to understand it. The first time, all I heard was irrigating deserts - which is, admittedly, a worthwhile idea to ponder.  This past winter, I read Paradise Lost for the first time. That said, I read along while I listened to Steven Vance read it via Audible. The narration kept me moving and not looking up all the details constantly, but the book before my eyes kept the narration from becoming an ignorable drone in my ears.  When we read Plutarch, we sometimes go sentence by sentence, but other times we have more success reading a paragraph or section in Anne White's guides and getting the "bigger picture" sense of that part of the story.  Momentum and follow through help when the book is a challenge.

And, just like the hills, every time we practice, we gain more stamina for the next big hill book. We can fight the gravity because we have success and practice behind us.

The same is true of those runaway downhill books. Where the ideas are coming fast and furious and easily and my mind becomes a jumble and there I go cartwheeling through and have no idea what I've read at the end. 

If I would take my time to plant my feet and take in the ideas carefully as they come. When I take a moment to think about the context and allusions, to interact with the ideas, those books can take on a whole new sort of meaning in my life. I can exercise less used muscles to practice skill and not allow myself to be just run ragged. Here, too, I fight the gravity that is more harmful to my thought life than I might first believe.

I've read a lot of Madeleine L'Engle in the past two years and she often talks about similar ideas in different ways. Those well worn paths are becoming a bit more and more downhill with each book.  I have to be careful to not think to myself, "there she goes again" and to really make sure I understand all that she is saying each time she revisits identity or naming or ontology or ... 

Brandy recommends having different kinds of books going at the same time. Her recommendation, based on a Parent's Review article, is to have a stiff book and a moderately easy book and a novel going at once so you can always pick up what is appropriate for the current time. This is because even a moderately easy book - whatever that is for you - has something to say and is worth reading. Just don't let yourself run downhill so quickly with it that you have no idea what you just finished reading.

Fight Gravity. 

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Book Review: S*x and the City of God by Carolyn Weber

Sex and the City of God: A Memoir of Love and LongingSex and the City of God: A Memoir of Love and Longing by Carolyn Weber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"The course of true love never did run smooth."

Nothing I can articulate about this book is as witty or well considered as Weber's own words. Her ability to look at life and - whether in the moment or at a later date - consider it in light of what others have written before is awe-inspiring to me. Weber's wide-reaching reading and knowledge and thought and references always pierce me with wonder. To see ideas, to take ideas, to make connections and then to apply them seamlessly into the narrative ... I'm certain was painstaking and challenging work, and yet so beautiful to me, a reader.

A good memoir will cause the reader to consider her own life and choices. Whether similar lives or dissimilar, a conversation begins and a friendship is created as we share our tales together - even if the author never hears our side. We feel when the going gets tough, a massive windstorm and a stormy marriage, no electricity or connection adds to the cutting off. If it weren't a memoir, one would wonder if it wasn't all metaphor - but we feel it in the marrow. We feel the joy of the first kiss, the first mention of TDH's name (in two books!), the frustration of the welcoming neighbors to the honeymoon condo, and the struggles in the wind.

Evocative is an overused book review word, but Weber evokes for us emotion, thought, and memory - sharing hers, we consider our own. She challenges us to know our own lives as Christians - married or singular - with Christ. She made me want to talk more with my teenagers about what it is to love, to marry, to be co-workers in the kingdom, why and how s*x is important at many stages. Connection, remembrance, joy, love.

I have less to say to sum up. I'm thankful that I was given a chance to read this ahead of release in exchange for an honest review. The ideas are Weber's with my own take explained. I rarely accept assigned reading opportunities because I'm bad at doing what someone else tells me to do, but I jumped at this one because I couldn't stop reading her Surprised by Oxford or Holy is the Day ... and I suspected I wouldn't be able to stop reading this either. I wasn't wrong. Check the dates.

There were a few places where I thought the editing could be tighter and where I suspect sections were moved around - with an explanation in a section in pages following the first introduction of the idea, and there were a few places with explanatory asides that I thought unnecessary, a few sentences that took an extra read to get the flow, but this slight (slight!) criticism doesn't detract from my overall edification, enjoyment, or high star rating.

Holding this one for when my teens are nearly out of my home (which will be sooner than I'd like, I think). I've never wanted to read City of God before (intimidating much?), but I think my friend Caro just put Augustine on my TBR.

I received an advanced pdf copy of this book from Intervarsity Press in exchange for an honest review.

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