Book Reviews

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny (Chief Inspector Gamache #14)

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny (Chief Inspector Gamache #14)

Summary: Gamache, Myrna and a guy neither of them knows, are called to be executors of a will for someone that none of them knows. 

I am a huge fan of Louise Penny’s Gamache novels. Not all of them are perfect, but 14 books in, three of the five best books in the series are the most recent three books. That is impressive.

Part of what I like about the Gamache books is that they are about things. There is a mystery, The plot revolves around the mystery. But there is more to the books than just the mystery. There are ongoing characters. Those characters are smart, thoughtful, morally complex, flawed and generally likable.

The main theme moral question for the past several books has been around the idea of when it is acceptable to do morally and ethically questionable things, for a greater good. This is spoiler-y if you have not read the previous books, but in the last book, Gamache let drugs into the country so that he could lure in the higher up in the drug organizations and shut them down. He wanted to deal a fatal blow to the whole drug infrastructure. But in the process more drugs came into the country and some communities were harmed. Because of his unauthorized operation (because he was at the same time still smoking out dirty cops and politicians), he was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (Prydain Chronicles #1)

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (Prydain Chronicles #1)Summary: Classic children’s fantasy. I think probably the best children’s epic fantasy series.

Reading the excellent Gateway Chronicles this year has made me a little nostalgic for the fantasy that I read in my youth, mostly Prydain Chronicles and L’Engle’s Time Quintet. (There is much fantasy that I read in my youth that I have no desire to revisit.)

First I picked up Black Cauldron when it was on sale for Kindle, then I saw that the audiobook for Book of Three was available at my library.

Revisiting Lloyd Alexander I am always struck by how short these books are. When I was reading them as a teen/pre-teen, they did not feel nearly as short.

Taran is a young sheltered early teen. He lives with two men that are the only family he can remember. Dallben, a very old wizard who teaches him and a blacksmith/farmer, Coll, who cares for the the farm he lives on and teaches Taran all of the practical things of life. Because he knows nothing else, he assumes the rest of the world is glorious. He wants to have adventures and glory.

Weight of Glory by CS Lewis

Weight of Glory by CS LewisTakeaway: Lots of classic Lewis here.

I went through a period when I was reading a ton of CS Lewis (either by or about). I looked today and if I counted correctly I have finished 19 of Lewis’ books, many of them multiple times and started but did not finish another 4. But it has been a little while since I read Lewis. Unless I missed something the last books I read about Lewis was the joint biography of the Inklings in Feb 2017. And the last books I read by Lewis was Screwtape Letters in Nov 2016.

I picked up the audiobook of Weight of Glory because it was super cheap and I needed something ‘light’ to off set a lot of other heavy things I have been reading/listening to. That is to say I was probably not as engaged as I should have been. Weight of Glory is the favorite Lewis book of several people I know. It is not that for me. Not because it is bad, but because it is near the end of Lewis’ library for me.

Imago by Octavia Butler (Xenogenesis #3)

Imago by Octavia Butler (Xenogenesis #3)Summary: The child of human and alien parents must find his own way.

One of my reading goals this year was to finished the final two fiction books that Octavia Butler wrote. In November I am just finishing the first of the two, so I am not sure I will get to the second.

Imago I think is a second tier Butler book. It is not bad. Butler is a good writer and creates intriguing worlds. This is not really complete series. It is set on earth, but an earth that an alien race has captured and rules. The alien world took over the Earth in the midst of a global war. The aliens capture the remaining humans in the world and for hundreds of years kept them in stasis while they were studied and the earth was restored after the war.

In the first book of the trilogy the first humans were awoken and that started a forced breeding program to create new species. The aliens are genetic manipulators that go from world to world collecting gene samples and creating new species, mining and using up the worlds until they are bare hunks of rock and then moving on. Butler at times could be a bit to on the nose with her imagery.

The conflict of the trilogy is about participation of humans in this breeding program and the ways that the new ‘constructs’ impact both the humans and the aliens. The three books are about three different characters, the human mother, her first construct child and then this one about another of her construct children, the first construct that is a genetic manipulator itself. (The genetic manipulators do not have sex or gender, they are the conduit through which the different genders connect for procreation.)

Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian by James H Cone

Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian by James H ConeSummary: Context to the why of Black Liberation Theology.

A few months ago I generally stopped referring to my posts as reviews. I am not really reviewing these books, I am trying to respond to them, give some thoughts and talk about what I have learned. That is especially true for a book like Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian by James H Cone. Almost exactly a year ago I read Cone’s 1985 memoir, My Soul Looks Back. That memoir was a mid-career memoir. And of course there are some overlapping memories and reflections, but it is interesting to me how different they are. The passing of more than 40 years does matter.

I could make this a post of just quotes from Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody. I have 20 that you can read on my Goodreads review. But the important part of reading a memoir like this is that it gives context for his other writing. I read his The Cross and the Lynching Tree (which he says was his favorite book) this summer. And I have previously read a couple of his other books. Many reduce Cone to just a ‘liberal theologian’ as if he has nothing to say to most of us. But Cone has much to say to us and reading his story I think matters to how we receive the rest of his work.

Cone was an academic theologian. His dissertation was on Barth. He was strongly influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr. As a Black theologian, he felt he had to respond to the civil rights movement, especially after the death of MLK and the rise of urban riots in the US. His question, “What, if anything, is theology worth in the black struggle in America?”, mattered not just in 1967 but also today.

Where many will disagree with Cone is his adoption of Malcom X’s statement, “We are black first and everything else second” and that discussion has continue today. But Cone was not rejecting finding his identity in Christ or was he implicitly condemning Whites and others by embracing his created Blackness. He was, in a not dissimilar way, embracing the concept of Black Lives Matters 50 years early.

Cone was frustrated by his theological training (and I still hear this from many minority theology students today).

The real historical Jesus, whom scholars have been seeking since the eighteenth century, was not white. That much I knew. When it became clear to me that Jesus was not biologically white and that white scholars actually lied by not telling people who he really was, I stopped trusting anything they said. It was ideologically tainted. I began to trust my own black experience as a better source for knowledge about God and Jesus. The black religious experience was less ideologically tainted because blacks were powerless and could not impose their view of Jesus on anybody. (Kindle Location 378)

Home by Marilynne Robinson

Home by Marilynne RobinsonSummary: An imperfect prodigal returns home to an imperfect father.

Pretty much any time I hear someone answer the question, who is the best Christian author writing fiction that is not marketed as ‘Christian Fiction’, Marilynne Robinson is usually listed in the top 10. I am glad we have a category called ‘Christian Fiction’. But I mostly do not read it. Not because all of it is bad, but because so much of it is formulaic.

I first read Gilead, the first of this loose trilogy in 2012 and again in 2015. Lila, the third book in the trilogy, I read twice in the space of three months at the end of 2014 and then again in early 2015, just before reading Gilead a second time. I have been reluctant to read Home for a couple reasons. First, it means that I have read all four of Robinson’s books of fiction. And I wanted to have something to look forward to. Second, there were a lot of negative reviews of Home in Audible for the quality of the audiobook. And I have liked Robinson’s books in audio.

But Robinson has hinted that she will publish another book of fiction. And I eventually just borrowed the audiobook from the library so I didn’t have to be disappointed in the audio. In the end I was not disappointed in the audiobook. The narrator was Maggi-Meg Reed, who seems quite familiar.

The three books of the trilogy are told from the perspective of three different people with overlapping timelines and shared events told from different perspectives. I was predisposed to dislike Jack, the subject (but not the narrator) of Home because of the negative impression of John Ames, the subject and narrator of Gilead. Jack is a more sympathetic character in Home, although certainly not innocent.

I am not sure whether this was really the intention, but this felt like a broken retelling of the story of the prodigal son. Rev Boughton, John Ames’ best friend is the father of eight children and near the end of his life. His prodigal son and oldest child, Jack, has been gone for 20 years, but comes back home. Glory, the baby, after a failed relationship has returned to the town of Gilead to care for her father and heal her own wounds.

Kierkegaard: A Single Life by Stephen Backhouse

Kierkegaard: A Single Life by Stephen BackhouseSummary: Helpful introduction to both Kierkegaard’s life and work.

To the best of my memory I have never studied or read any Kierkegaard. I have heard several people commend Kierkegaard: A Single Life and when I saw it on sale on audiobook I picked it up.

This is a brief, but good overview of his life. And because Kierkegaard is important primarily for his writing, there is good context for that as well. At the end of the book, there was short descriptions of each piece (1-3 pages) which was much more helpful and interesting than I would have suspected going in.

In general I find biographies worth reading, if when I am finished, I want to either find another biography or pick up books written by the subject. I more want to read Kierkegaard than read more about him at this point. So I rate this as a helpful biography. Light, short, it feels a bit like one of the Very Short Introduction to X styled biographies. It is longer than that, about 300 pages. But this was clearly designed as an introduction.

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler by John Hendrix

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler by John HendrixSummary: Brief graphic novel about Bonhoeffer with a very good understanding of the German context and Hitler’s rise to power. 

Bonhoeffer is one of those subjects that I am continually fascinated by. I have read a number of books by and about Bonhoeffer including two others this year. I did not walk into The Faithful Spy blind.

Even though I know it isn’t necessarily true, I tend to think of graphic novels as oriented toward young adult readers. In other words, a simplified perspective. But like Hendrix’s book on John Brown, the presentation of Bonhoeffer is complex.

Despite my long reading list about Bonhoeffer, I honestly, think that The Faithful Spy may have more clearly laid out how Hitler rose to power than any other book on Bonhoeffer that I have read. (Or at the least, I actually understood it this time.) Because Hitler has been talked about a lot lately I was paying attention to how The Faithful Spy told the story of Hitler’s rise. A meme on Facebook recently was talking about Hitler being voted into power, but as Faithful Spy makes clear, that is a partial truth. Hitler was elected, but only after he had stolen power and circumvented the democratic process that was in place.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

SWho Fears Death by Nnedi Okoraforummary: The child of a violent rape in a post-apocalyptic future Africa is named Onyesonwu, or Who Fears Death.

Who Fears Death seems to be Nnedi Okorafor’s best know book. But that may be surpassed with her recent Binti trilogy. This is the fifth of Okorafor’s books I have read in the last 18 months or so. The books are not the same story, but there are elements where I can see her style and perspective carrying through. I cannot help but compare her to Octavia Butler because I am two books away from reading all of Butler’s fiction. Both Butler and Okorafor write strong Black women as their protagonists. All of Okorafor’s settings are future Africa, but there is a mix of fantasy and science fiction elements as well as Magical Realism.

I am not sure how I fully feel about Magical Realism. There are times when it appears that the magical realism is science that can be controlled. But other times when it is magic that based on cultic beings or maybe elemental structures that are not quite scientific. And still others times the magical realism feels more like a method of describing religious beliefs or beings.

Who Fears Death is not my favorite of the Okorafor novels, but it is a solid novel that was worth reading. One of the reasons I have continued to try to be intentional about reading diverse authors is that the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds means that I am exposed to different methods of story telling and assumptions. I cannot really describe Who Fears Death as Dystopian YA in the sense that Hunger Games, Divergent, the Giver or Maze Runner are Dystopian YA. I am not even sure if it is really YA, although it is the story of Onye, focusing primarily on her life from 16 to 21.

The culture and assumptions are foreign to me. Veils, ritual genital mutilation, caste systems and different senses of shame and independence from community help me to see how much my own western cultural assumptions are a lens that I make normative and how much I need to decenter my own perspectives to work on empowering others.

Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much by Ashley Hales

Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much by Ashley HalesTakeaway: As Christians who believe in embodiment, we are Christians in a place, not just abstractly.

When I was in college I thought I was called to the city. I had a mentor prophesy over me that I was called to the city and pray that I would fulfill that calling. That mentor was later found in significant sin and left (quietly) in disgrace. I loved Chicago, where I spent more than than any other place in my life and where I still work. But in 2006 I moved to suburban Atlanta and now have lived in this house longer than any other home I have lived in. I honestly doubt that I will ever live inside a city like Chicago again. In large part because I have family. It isn’t that I would not take my children to a city, but that extended family structures matter and I am in an extended family structure that is suburban.

Over the past few years I have been changing in my attitude toward suburbs. In part DL Mayfield has given voice to some of why I have changed. She lives in community with recent immigrants and those in poverty in suburban Portland OR. In Portland, and much of the rest of the country, the suburbs are increasingly where the poor live. Nationally, more poor people live in the suburbs than either urban or rural areas. In addition, suburbs are becoming increasingly diverse. My county school district is now predominately minority. And while that is not reflected in the population as a whole, the population as a whole in my county is also booming more diverse. As DL Mayfield has said, she is in the suburbs because that is where the poor, the immigrant and the needy are likely to be found.