Friday, July 25, 2014

Current Reads

I seem to have hit one of those periods where I have many, many books going at once. I can't seem to settle down into one.  So rather than my usual quick 5 TBR list, I thought I would take a moment to discuss all the books I have going at the moment.  I often read more than one book at once.  Other bookworms will understand.

Here's what I've got going on at the moment:

1. The Civil War, A Narrative, Volume 1 by Shelby Foote.  I recently watched Ken Burns' epic documentary The Civil War and, being the geek that I am, I wanted to find out more about Shelby Foote, the author that is interviewed throughout the series.  I discovered he had written a three volume narrative on The American Civil War, so I checked it out from my library.  And I LOVE IT.  Very easy to read, not at all dry, written in narrative form, it is incredibly intriguing.  Mr. Foote certainly did his research.  I don't know how long it's going to take me to finish it, but I will, eventually.  (It's very, very long.  The Prologue, which I just finished, is 72 pages.)  And then  I will move on to Volume II.

2. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Apparently I am on a Civil War kick.  I have started this one so many times, and it is fascinating, I don't know why I can't finish the thing.  But it's coming along, and it's a nice complement to Shelby Foote's narrative.  I'm going to be quite the Civil War expert when I am all done.

3. The Stolen Crown  by Susan Higginbotham.  This is a historical fiction I found in Kindle form for $2.99.  The author is one recommended on the Sharon Kay Penman FB fan page (yes, I follow it, don't judge), so I am giving her a try.  It's about Edward IV's secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville.  So far it's very good.

4. The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  This is actually several books in one, and currently I am working my way though The Return of Sherlock Holmes.  I do love Sherlock, and these are great short stories, which makes for good reads.  They are great for reading in line at the checkout counter at Wal-Mart.  This is another one I am reading on my Kindle.  (I told you I was slowly coming around to the ebook craze.)

5. Lost in Translation by John Klein and Adam Spears.  This book examines the Bible from a Hebrew perspective - which was, after all, how it was actually written in the first place, for the most part.  Absolutely fascinating, and it's shaking up my 33 years of Western Civilation-y interpretation of the Bible.  Which is an EXCELLENT idea, I highly recommend it.  God loves to shake up our preconceived ideas!

6. The Prime Minister's Secret Agent by Susan MacNeal.  This is the next Maggie Hope novel.  It just came out in paperback.  I splurged and ordered it from Amazon.  Should be here this afternoon.  I bet I have it finished in three days.

7. Four Blood Moons by John Hagee.  I actually don't know much about this one, but it has been recommended to me by multiple Christian brothers and sisters that I respect, so I'm reading it soon, it's on the short list.

8.  Cinder by Marissa Meyer.  This is a YA book that I am trying to read because I like to keep up with the books my students are reading.  The premise is intriguing - it's a futuristic telling of Cinderella where Cinderella turns out to be a cyborg.  Unfortunately, I can't seem to get into it.  I'll get through it soon, it's sitting on my nightstand, but I seem to be easily distracted from it by all these other reads.

9. Written in my Own Heart's Blood by Diana Gabaldon.  This is book 8 in the Outlander series.  I love the Outlander series.  I have waited for this book for three years.  I am totally pumped to read it...but I keep getting interrupted, and it was annoying me, so I put it down for a bit.  I have a vacation weekend coming up, that will probably be a good time to get going on it.

So there's my to-be-read list.  No wonder my to-be-folded laundry pile is so high...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

In Case You Didn't Notice...

...I quit rating the books by stars.


Well, to tell the truth...I kind of forgot.

And then, once I remembered, I realized it was kind of stupid anyway.  Our society loves ranking things.  We live by it.  But it's not really necessary.  How can I really  compare one book to another?  Books are written for different purposes and mean different things to different people.  How can I say one's a two-star and one's a four-star?

They are works of art.  They aren't meant to be ranked.  They are meant to be pondered and discussed.

So...that's why I quit.  Maybe I'll start back up.  But in the meantime, I prefer to just discuss.

The Divergent Series

I was glancing over previous posts of mine, and I suddenly realized I had never written a review of a book series that consumed most of my reading time this semester: The Divergent series!  How could I have let this one slip by!  Probably because of the crazy spring semester I had.  Well, time to right the wrong.  The movie came out just a few months ago, so the series is very hot and popular right now.  A good time to put in my two cents.

I picked up Divergent off the bargain shelf at Wal-Mart because I needed a hospital book to read while sitting with my mom in the ICU.  It was a good pick - it's a fast read, keeps the reader enthralled, but it doesn't require too much brainpower to keep up with the story line.  It's pretty straightforward, as are its sequels, Insurgent and Allegiant.  It's definitely the kind of series that kept me up all night reading and calling friends desperate to borrow the next one.  It's that kind of exciting series.

The Divergent series tells the story of Tris, a teenager living in post-apocalyptic Chicago whose society had created a unique way to keep the peace.  When you reach a certain age, you choose which "faction" to belong to, according your aptitude and desire. Your choices are Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Erudite, and Dauntless.   There is a sort of virtual reality test given to indicate which faction you would fit into the best, and the idea is that you live out the rest of your life within this faction, happy to have your place in society.  Each faction contributes in some way to their society, and everyone just lives happily along, locked into the life they have chosen.  That is, of course, unless you wash out of your faction and get rejected, in which case you wind up living with the Factionless, and you are an outcast for life, living on the streets and off the charity of others.    And everyone gets along.  Right?

Well, of course not.  This is dystopian young adult fiction, after all.  There are no happy endings.

Divergent introduces you to Tris's world and the world of the Dauntless, the faction Tris chooses against her family's expectations as they are from Abnegation.  From then on, Tris's life is on a breathless fast-track through danger, suspense, backstabbing (sometimes literally), and love that thankfully manages to be passionate without being explicit.  The story ends in a major cliffhanger, and the next book, Insurgent, picks right up where Divergent left off - and then turns everything upside down.  You begin to realize that nothing you thought you knew was true.  Then Allegiant starts - and you realize that NOTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW WAS TRUE.   It twists, it turns, loyalties are challenged, the factions are blown apart - and Tris ultimately learns the truth about her society.

Honestly, it's all very exciting up to this point.  I liked to storyline better than The Hunger Games trilogy, and I like Tris much better than Katniss.  (I'm not sure you're really supposed to like Katniss.)  Tris is unendingly brave and loyal - to a fault, really.  She is stubborn and independent and willing to do what it takes to save the people she loves.   She's hard, but she's good, and I liked her.

The story itself is good too - it messes with your head and makes you play "what if?" a lot.  What if everything you knew to be true was wrong?  What if all the authority in your society was really about something else?  What's really going on behind the scenes?  Every time you think you are comfortable with how things are progressing, you find out what you thought you knew was wrong.  It kept things very exciting.

However, like most dystopian literature, the ending left me feeling...bereft.  I needed more closure.  It feels like most dystopian novelists write themselves into a corner and then don't know what to do.  So...they just kind of end things.  That's how I felt at the end of The Hunger Games and Matched series, and the feeling was repeated again when I finished Allegiant.  It was highly unsatisfying, and I think the author could have made some of the points about bravery and loyalty without some of the plot turns she chose.  I also wanted to know more about what happened to each character and about what was going on in the rest of the world.  This is an aggravating aspect of most dystopian books today - they tend to focus solely on the United States.  What about the rest of the world?  I live in a very global community.  Why is the future suddenly so only-us focused?

That being said, Divergent is not a bad read at all.  The series goes fast, stays interesting, and gives you a lot to think about while not being too taxiing on the brain.  It's fun and not too draining. the interest of total honesty...Four, Tris's love we say...Smokin'.  Hot.  It is not easy to create a character this hot without a visual.  But...yeah.  Veronica Roth pulled it off.

These would make a great summer read.  If this is the genre that interests you, you will enjoy Divergent.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Some Thoughts on Rereading

"If you would tell me the heart of a man, tell me not what he reads, but what he re-reads." - Francois Mauriac 

I love to own books.  My poor husband knew this when when he married me, but I am not sure he knew the extension of my book-owning frenzy.  Do not mistake me - I adore our local library and avail myself of it on a weekly basis.  However, I truly do love owning books.  I love the sight of my full bookshelves and the feeling of my books my in hands.  I love being able to fold the pages if need be, or write notes in the margin.  But my favorite part of owning my own books is a phenomenon known among most hopeless bookworms: rereading!

I am a chronic re-reader.  I read the same books over and over again.  This may seem strange to some readers, but many will know what I am talking about.  To me, the ability to reread a book is the ability to, at any given moment, meet up with a dear old friend and know their deep companionship all over again.  You know the feeling of getting together with one of your dearest friends for coffee and catching up?  That's what picking up an already read book is like.  It's a marvelously comforting thing to be able to do. 

In addition, rereading books is not really reading the same book over and over again.  My sixth grade teacher taught me this.  We were given a choice of two different books to read for a class assignment, and one of the book options was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.  (One of my favorite rereads.)  My father had read this to me when I was about six, so I was going to read the other one, but my teacher - who was very intentional about knowing her students - strongly suggested that I reread it, telling me it would mean something completely different to me know.  She was right.  As a young child, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is just a fantasy story - but if you reread it again and again as you get older, you start to see other themes and messages emerge, and you begin to appreciate the message C.S. Lewis was really trying to communicate.  I never forgot this lesson, and I am eternally grateful to my sixth grade teacher for it.    We change as we grow older.  As we change, the meaning of books change as well.  Although I may know the story line of a book, I see it from a different perspective each time I read it. I am married with children now; that mean one of my favorite books, Up a Family Tree, is far more meaningful now than it was when I first read it as a teenager.  (See my previous review here.)  This phenomenon of books changing as we change happens every time I reread a book.

I reread different books for different reasons.  For example, I probably reread Gone With the Wind two or three times a year.  This book, which I have reviewed here, has been a perennial favorite of mine since middle school.  I know it so well that I can pick up any one of my multiple copies - yes, I have multiple copies - drop it open to any given page, and I am back with my old pals Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, and that Captain of All Wimps, Ashley.  This is a book I like to reread and play out scenarios in my head.  I can see each scene clearly as if they were being played out on stage in front of me.  Then I like to imagine how I would have reacted in those scenes and how I would really like to sit down all four main characters and knock some sense into their heads.  Rereading Gone With The Wind is a very active experience for me, and it allows the imagination to run wild.

The Mitford series, on the other hand, is a series I reread when I need something soothing.  It is just about as perfect a series as you can possibly find.  There are nine books, which means there is plenty to revisit, but each book (unlike Gone With the Wind) is a manageable size.  You can pick up any of the nine novels and simply pick up the story line.  Father Tim, Cynthia, and the citizens of Mitford are deal old friends of mine.  I don't really play out scenarios or rerun scenes in my mind from this series - each scene is perfect within itself.  You just soak in Mitford.  It isn't controversial and it doesn't get me blood going.  It's just...relaxing.  

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie is a book that I have not yet reviewed, but I plan to soon.  It is another perennial reread of mine.  This may be the absolute most perfect mystery book ever conceived.  There is nothing to change, nothing to alter.  The plot is something beyond genius.  It is a literary masterpiece.    I can figure out most mystery novels that I read before I get to the end, and then once I finish it, there's not much to revisit, so I don't reread them.  Why reread  a mystery when you know the solution?  Somehow, though, And Then There Were None draws me back again and again.  There are so many details that I forget things from year to year, so there are always surprises.  The summation in the next-to-last chapter, and the grand solution in the end, are my favorite parts, and they are so intricate that it continues to be exciting every time I read it - and I have been reading it since my teen years.  My copy is quite bedraggled.  But it never ceases to be fascinating.

The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom is another book I revisit on a regular basis.  This tells the story of Corrie Ten Boom's family in the Netherlands during World War II.  This Christian family risked torture and death under the Nazi regime in order to hide Jews in their home.  Eventually they were caught, and Corrie and her sister were sent to a concentration camp.  This is one of those books I believe everyone should read at some point in their lives.  Corrie's courage and faith is both inspiring and humbling.  Her life is an example of that kind of life I want to have - not necessarily requiring a trip to a concentration camp, but unswerving faith in the face of great horror.  She is one of my heroes, and God has used her story in my life numerous time to teach me lessons about His love for His people.  It is not an easy book to read, but it is a necessary one, and one for which I have a special place in my heart.

There are many, many more books out there that I love to pick up and read again and again, all for different reasons - to live the adventure, to soak in the goodness, to experience a great story, for great inspiration, and more.  This is just a small snapshot of my rereading habits, and this is why my bookshelves are overflowing and only continue to grow.  (Sorry, husband!)  Rereading allows me to meet with the same thrills over and over again.  So my confession for the day is: rereading is one of my favorite pastimes.  If you've never tried revisiting a favorite book, give it a shot.  You will find that your favorites will renew themselves and give you a new meaning all over again.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Hound of the Baskervilles

I am slowly accepting the arrival of the ebook.  I have nothing against them, I just don't prefer them over actual, physical books.  One of the things I like best about books is being able to flip through pages, start here or there, and go hither and yonder among the chapters (if I've read the book already, that is).  I love picking up books off shelves and opening them to any page and re-reading them.  It's like meeting an old friend for coffee.  You  can't do that with an ebook.  When I'm reading a  book for the first time, I like glancing towards the back with satisfaction as to how much I have left.  There just isn't the same amount of satisfaction to be had in that little "46%" in the corner of the screen.  I also love the feel of a book in my hand, the smell of it, the texture of the pages.  It's all part of the reading experience for me. 

I am coming around, however, to reading the occasional book on my Kindle.  I have a Kindle Fire, not so much for reading, but for tablet purposes. I do, however, occasionally download a book onto it, especially if the book is free.  (I also resent paying for books I can't actually see.)  And I will say this - reading on my Kindle has solved my lifelong problem of how to read while cooking.  It is easier to prop up a Kindle and read it while stirring than it is to hold open a book.  I will give you that. 

So I will confess that my most recently finished book, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was read on my Kindle.  I have the complete set of Sherlock Holmes on my Kindle, and I am working my way through them with great enjoyment.  I still would love to have a hard copy on my shelves.  A lovely leather, or even fake leather, edition of the complete works.  And hey, I have a birthday coming up.  I mean, I'm just putting facts out there in the universe...who knows where they may land...

But I digress.  Back to Sherlock Holmes.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps the best-known Holmes story.  It is quintessential Sherlock.  it has been adapted for the stage, for TV, and for film numerous times in numerous languages.  Pieces of it are well-known parts of the Sherlock canon.  It is here that the hardcore Sherlock fan finds the Vatican Cameos reference, among others.  It is a timeless story that defines the characters of Holmes and Watson. 

When you read the novel, you realize why. 

The Hound of the Baskervilles is mystery and suspense at its finest.  Intrigue, mistaken identities, false clues, mysterious noises, villains, heroes - all there.  It is suspenseful without being gory or weirdly supernatural, something with which today's writers seem to struggle.  It leads the reader down one path and then expertly pulls them down the other.  The mystery of the unfortunate death of Sir Charles Baskerville, and the fate of his heir Sir Henry, grabs the attention of the reader and does not let it go until the last line.  At the same time, it is a fabulous portrait of Holmes at his finest.  Everything you love about Sherlock is there, and everything you love about his faithful companion Watson is there.  The two of them take on the case with a singular energy and apply both of their skill sets towards sorting it all out - though Holmes, of course, always has the upper hand...being Holmes, after all.

I read The Hound of the Baskervilles in about 48 hours.  It would have taken me less time had I not fallen asleep this afternoon for a much needed nap.  It's a fast read because you can't put it down.  Written over 100 years ago, and yet the modern 21st century reader can't put it down.  That's the sign of true genius in writing.  That's the genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and that's what makes it timeless.  (Incidentally, it originally appeared as a serial story in a magazine, stretching from August 1901 to April 1902.  Can you imagine have to wait months and months for the conclusion to your favorite can't-put-it-down novel?  It's like the early 20th century form of torture that Moffat and Gatniss, today's Sherlock creators, are putting us fans through now!)

If you've never read any classic Holmes, check out The Hound of the Baskervilles and experience what read literary genius is like! 

TBR update:
I am still reading Written in my Own Heart's Blood, but it has taken a slight backseat because I am trying to complete my local library's adult reading challenge.  They have a list of 12 genres, and if you read books in six of those genres, you get a prize and you get put in a drawing for the grand prize.  You can enter up to three times.  I am trying to complete the thing by the end of the summer, so I haven't been able to attack Diana Gabaldon with quite the fierceness that I would like.  I have one entry completed and I am halfway through my second entry.  So here are my current TBR, other than her book:

1. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
2. Cinder by Marissa Meyer
3. Maise Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
4. Lost in Translation by Adam Spears and John Kline
5. And...other books.  I need to find a Romance, a Western, an Inspirational Fiction, or a book about Kansas.  Or any mixture of the above.  And I am open to suggestions! 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Me, Myself, and Bob

Anyone who was involved in American ministry in the 1990s is familiar with that all-important children's video series, Veggie Tales.  Doesn't matter if you didn't do children's ministry.  EVERYONE knew about VeggieTales, and most people - myself included - LOVED them.  Bob and Larry were a refreshing change from most children's video series.  Instead of goofy or campy names and songs and so-sweet storylines that adults were left gagging, Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber brought humor, Monty Python references, French Peas, and songs about water buffaloes.  While kids were learning that God made them special and loved them very much, adults were rolling and asking their kids of they could watch it again.  My own mother sat in a Christian bookstore and watched an entire episode without any of her children around, she was so caught up in the hilarity.  The creators, Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki, were legends of the Christian publishing world.  Their website proclaimed their goal of being in the top 5 children's production companies in the country.  Yay for Big Idea!  Yay for Veggie Tales!  Go God!

Funny how we have one perception of reality when the truth of what's going on is so very different.

A few years ago, I found a book called Me, Myself, and Bob by Phil Vischer, telling his story of the rapid rise - and then, unknown to me, destruction - of Big Idea studios.  While I had noticed that VeggieTales had undergone some changes in recent years, I had no idea of the behind-the-scenes story.  Phil's story - testimony, really - filled my heart with both joy and pain and gave me a whole new perspective on what it means to follow your dreams.

Me, Myself, and Bob is Phil's story of a man with a dream to be the next big thing in Christian media.  His goal was literally to become the next Walt Disney.  Phil had a passion for storytelling, a passion for teaching kids about the Bible, and a passion for humor.  These all came together in the phenomenon of VeggieTales, which worked wonderfully for a time.  However, as time wore on, Phil failed to do something key: keep his dreams before the Lord and have Him guide the way.  As a result, the vision of Big Idea became blurred, people were hired that did not have the same passions as Phil, and things came apart at the seams.   The result was the implosion of a company, the laying off of hundreds of employees, and the death of a dream - a dream that turned out to be killing Phil, his friendships, his family, and his company, because he kept trying to do it all on his own and cling to closely to what he thought was supposed to happen.  It was only when it all came crashing down that he began to learn what God was really telling him all along and how to pursue his dreams in the way God intended.

It's good to have dreams.  It's good to have ambitions.  God places desires in our hearts and He wants us to pursue them with passion - but success comes when we pursue them with HIS passion and direction, not our own.  That's the story of Phil and his band of veggies.  Phil doesn't even have rights to his own characters anymore.  Legal and financial issues tore them away.  But in the tearing down came the building up of his own faith and the ability to let God take over.

Phil now writes and produces what I believe is the best children's series of all time, What's in the Bible?  This series is a 13 DVD journey that literally takes kids through the entire Bible and simply tells them what's in it.  No interpretations, not really a lot of commentary, and no translating stories into "softer" versions for kids.  This series has given Phil the ability to pursue the real dreams that God has placed in him and do things that VeggieTales never could let him do.  The series is wonderful, and I highly recommend it for adults as well as children.  But it is all the more wonderful for having read Me, Myself, and Bob and having a greater understanding for what God has done in Phil Vischer's life.

Me, Myself and Bob is a great story of letting go and letting God.  It is hilarious and heart wrenching and teaches some all-important life lessons.  If you are pursuing your dreams - or even if you're not there yet - I highly recommend it for your summer reading list.