The Nature of the Beast: Chief Inspector Gamache #11 by Louise Penny

Summary: A retired Inspector Gamache continues to need to respond to the deaths around him in Three Pines.

Popular murder mystery series always have the problem of very high rates of murder around the protagonist. It is one reason that they tend to be police officers of big cities in order to give some credibility to the number of murders.

But in the Inspector Gamache series, the protagonist has retired to a town that is so small that it is not even on any map, has a dirt road to get into it and no high speed internet access. About half of the books so far have been focused on local murders and the reader just has to wonder about the character of the town. In this book we find that the village has expanded to become large enough that it has a community theater with a dedicated theater space.

My strained credibility still enjoys the series. Gamache is a great lead and there are many characters around him that are just as enagaging.

In this case a young imaginative boy who is known for his wild tales goes missing and his body is eventually found. This leads to a case that gets bigger and bigger and eventually includes international affairs and weapons deals and a serial killer as a side theme.

The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China by Huan Hsu

Liu Feng Shu was a wealthy intellectual and landowner in Chinese village during the early 1900s. As Japanese invaders worked their way across China in 1938, Shu dug a hole in the family’s garden. Under the cover of darkness, the elderly man lined the walls of the hole with bamboo and shelves to house his incredible collection of Chinese porcelain. He then covered the hole with a false floor, replanted the garden, and then gathered his family to flee in oncoming invaders.

Seventy years later Shu’s great-great grandson, American writer, Huan Hsu, encounters the porcelain collection at the Seattle Art Museum, launching him on a quest to learn more about his family history and determine what happened to his great-great grandfather’s buried treasure. Hsu chronicles his quest in The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China. Part memoir, part travelogue, and part political history, Hsu’s journey becomes much more than what happened to his family’s heirlooms. Hsu learns more about himself and his family of origin. The author’s ancestors and living relatives are as memorable of characters in any great fiction. The country of China looms large as a main character as well, full of mystery and contradictions. The Porcelain Thief is an intimate look inside China; revealing and riveting.

The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China by Huan Hsu Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

Lucky: How the Kingdom Comes to Unlikely People by Glenn Packiam

I am reposting my 2011 review because the kindle edition is free today. Lucky: How the Kingdom Comes to Unlikely PeopleTakeaway: Scripture needs to be retold, so we can hear it again for the first time and be changed.

There are lots of ways to study scripture.  But two ways have been bouncing around in my head as being particularly important for me.  One is the serious academic study of a text, long or short.  Investigation into what the language researchers say about it, what the cultural anthropologists know about the culture it was written in, what the comparative literature people know about other texts that might have been written in a similar time or culture, what the historians that can talk about how that passage has been read and interpreted over time, etc.  I think that type of reading and study of scripture is very important.  I do not do enough research into scripture like that.  (The Lost World of Genesis One is one of the recent books I have read that is along those lines.)

But the second type of scripture work is illustrated quite well by this book.  The author does a lot of the type of study that is part of the first type of study, but the focus is not the study, but the retelling. The author’s research is to understand the text deeply, so that she or he can tell others about the text in a way that is modern and appropriate for the culture and people that are hearing it.  And even more important, to use the “Theological Imagination” (as Eugene Peterson puts it) to help those of us that have heard the scripture before rediscover it in new ways.  Some Christians look down on this type of work, but it is the essential work of teaching.  Teaching takes an idea and learns to communicate it in a way that is understood, and hopefully can be acted upon.

Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street

I am reposting Seth Simmons 2013 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale (probably only today) for $1.99. There is also an earlier 2009 review by Adam Shields
Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street This is a difficult book to classify, and thus to review. It’s not a book of economics, but rather about economics, particularly the modern focus on mathematics to the exclusion of ethics. It’s pretty abstract and philosophical. I almost gave up a number of times in the first 150 pages, as I slogged through Sedlacek picking out and commenting on the economic bread crumbs found in the most ancient of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, followed by Greek thought, Stoicism, historic Christianity, and the Enlightenment thought of Hume, Descartes, and Adam Smith.

Wonder by RJ Palacio

  1. Reposting this 2013 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $1.99. (Wonder was one of my favorite books of 2013)

Wonder by RJ PalacioSummary: Middle grade fiction about a boy with significant facial deformity learning to live in the world and the world learning to live with him.

Wonder is a book I would not have picked up on my own.  In general I like young adult (teen), but do not read a lot of middle grade fiction.

But more importantly, the description discouraged me  from wanting to get started.  Another book about a sick kid that changes the way people think about the world.

Yes, this was a book about a kid that changes the way people think about the world, but it was a very good one.

Ten-year-old August (Auggie) is going to school for the first time.  It is 5th grade and a new middle school.  August has been homeschool prior to this because of the many surgeries to try and repair his body.

The first section of the book is all narrated by August. And had it stopped there, this would have been a good book about how people can feel bad when they are mistreated.  Or maybe even a good book about how a kid can overcome adversity.

What makes Wonder a great book, is the book changes narration throughout the school year.  His best friend at school, the girl that first reached out to him at school, his sister, his sister’s boyfriend, his sister’s best friend, and then August again.  The change in voice allows us to see that while August has facial deformities that make his life difficult, the love of his parents, his friends and other things make his life good.

The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir

I am reposting this 2014 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $1.99.
Summary: An astronaut believed to be dead, gets left on Mars.

My reading this past week has shaken up my best of 2014 book lists. The Martian and Unappologetic have both earned places on the list. It was a good reading week.

The Martian is another example of why we need to encourage independent authors. Andy Weir wrote and released this himself, eventually releasing it on kindle and then having it picked up by a mainstream publisher and re-releasing it and eventually earning himself a place on the New York Times best seller list.

The story is straight forward. During a dust storm on Mars, Mark Watney and the rest of the crew attempted to evacuate Mars before their ship is tipped over in the storm. Watney gets lost in the storm, and because his suit readings show that he is dead, the rest of the crew takes off without him.

The Road to Character by David Brooks

Summary: We need to be pursuing eulogy virtues, not resume virtues.

I like David Brooks. I don’t always agree with his politics, but I think he is largely a reasonable pundit and even when I disagree I usually understand his position. I really liked his earlier book Bobos in Paradise but I just have not gotten around to reading his last two books. But after a positive mention on twitter by James KA Smith and Englewood Review of Books editor Chris Smith (and noticing that the audiobook was on Scribd, but going away soon as part of some changes there) I picked it up.

This is a hard book for me to review. There is much to commend here. In many ways this is a better version of Eric Metaxes’ 7 Men and the Secret to their Greatness. Brooks has a clear vision and has no problem actually telling us what the secrets to greatness of his profiled people are. The secret is character.

But at the same time this felt like a nostalgic look at character. For Brooks, character is about suffering. I do not completely disagree, but it seems like an overly simplistic understanding. Suffering is where we see character, suffering is like exercise that helps to develop character. But the development of character requires more than just suffering.

The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction by Eugene Peterson

Summary: How should pastors spend their time and focus.

After re-reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor, I looked around for something else of Peterson’s to read. I picked this up primarily because of the subtitle. I am interested in spiritual direction and wanted to get Peterson’s take on it.

There is definitely wisdom here. Primarily, this is a book that is calling on pastors to take charge of the definition of their calling. The role of the pastor is to call people to Christ, not to primarily manage an organization.

Queen of Hearts (A Royal Spyness Mystery #8 by Rhys Bowen

Summary: Georgiana and her mother travel to the US and encounter theft and murder.

Queen of Hearts came out just over a years ago. Many of the initial reviews were negative (although the average has come up since it first came out.) I went ahead and picked it up since the next book in the series has also come out.

This cozy mystery series has stalled a bit and this book while not horrible, did not move the broader story along at all.

Georgiana’s mother decided to try to go to the US to get a quickie divorce so that she can marry her current man. Georgiana tags along. On the ocean liner there is a theft and maybe a murder. But a Hollywood director asks Georgiana’s mother to be in a movie (she is a well known stage actress) and so they head off to Hollywood.

As is normal, Georgiana’s secret fiancée Darcy happens to show up on the trip in pursuit of a jewel thief. Georgiana takes primary lead in solving the eventual murder (Darcy is not around for most of the main action). In several earlier books I was really irritated by Georgiana’s reticence. But she was much more forceful and present in this book.  So that is a move in the right direction.

Pietr the Latvian (Inspector Maigret Book 1) by Georges Simenon

Takeaway: Smart mysteries look at character.

As with many other books, I picked up the first of the Inspector Maigret books based on a recommendation from John Wilson on the Books and Culture podcast. Penguin has commissioned new translations of this classic French mystery series.

This is the first of well over 100. So the order isn’t that important, but I like to read series books in order when possible.

This is a short mystery (less than 200 pages) and several of the reviews comment about the fact that this is not one of the best of the series. So my expectations were low going in.

It was an enjoyable read, not earth shattering, but good.

There was one line that I need to go back and find again and quote properly at some point. But Maigret is staking out a house. He has a hunch that the house has a connection to the case, but he is not sure. Maigret in explaining why he is in the rain and cold when he could be at home and dry. (Paraphrasing here) Most inspectors track the criminal as the criminal. But Maigret knows that criminals are people. So instead of looking for their criminal life, he looks for their humanity and usually in their humanity finds them.