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All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

I am reposting this 2013 review because the Audible.com Audiobook is on sale today for $3.95.
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthySummary: Beautifully written tragic story of desire for what cannot be.

Cormac McCarthy is a spare writer. Lots of detail and almost poetic language. But this is an introvert’s book.  The characters talk, but there is no extra meandering dialogue. Dialogue has purpose.

McCarthy seems ideally suited to write about the idealized lone western male. His characters are self-sufficient, hard, tragic, honest to a fault, do not expect anyone to help them, but want to help others if they can.

In All the Pretty Horses (I have not seen the movie, so I do not know how it compares), John Grady Cole leaves home at 16 with his best friend. After his parent’s divorce, his mother wants nothing to do with ranch life and his father is left without a ranch (or anything else). He can give John nothing that he wants or needs. John and Rawlins (17) head to Mexico to see if they can find the rancher’s life that they seek.

Along the way, Jimmy Blevins, a 13 or 14 year old run away and troublemaker, joins up with them. Cole as the leader of the group allows Blevins to join them because it is clear that Blevins can not care for himself. Cole knows he will regret the decision and the theme is set with the Cole’s wise word:

“Every dumb thing I ever done in my life there was a decision I made before that got me into it. It was never the dumb thing. It was always the choice I made before it.”

Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace

I am reposting this 2012 review because the Kindle Edition  is on sale for $0.99. The lowest price it has ever been.
Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace

Summary: We should give not out of obligation, but out of appreciation for what God has given to us.  Forgiveness is a particular type of giving but is it even more important that we offer forgiveness to one other because we are in need of forgiveness and because God has forgiven us.

This is a hard book to review. It is only six real chapters (plus a forward, an interlude, an epilogue and a conclusion.) But in the 225 pages of content, I highlighted 43 passages (many of them are multi-paragraph highlights). I cannot think of any other book I have ever highlighted so much.

There is so much rich theology about who God is, how God works in us, how God wants us to work in the lives of others. And this is not simple ‘five steps to loving God and your neighbor’ self help writing.  This is rough going. I read this over a month and still feel like I read it too quickly.

The first (long) chapter dealt with who God is. This is central to Volf’s understanding of how we can understand both giving and forgiving. Volf says most people see God as either a negotiator or Santa Claus. In other words, they either see God as someone you can strike a deal with in order to get what you want, or they see him as someone who just gives stuff willy-nilly. Later Volf contrasts our perception of the giving God with our misperceptions of how we understand God’s forgiveness.  People tend to see God as either an implacable judge, or as a doting grandparent.

This is a good summary statement for the book:

“You can sum up where we’ve landed in four simple sentences. The world is sinful. That’s why God doesn’t affirm it indiscriminately [like santa claus or a doting grandparent]. God loves the world. That’s why God doesn’t punish it in justice [like a negotiator or implacable judge]. What does God do with this double bind? God forgives.”

But there is so much more. In some ways I wish this were two shorter books. Because while the nature of giving and forgiving are linked in Volf’s understanding, they could be separated and it would be easier to recommend. Because even though 250 pages is not that long, it is heavy content. (Not hard to read, because Volf really is writing fairly simply; but it is hard to process.)

It is especially difficult to work through the issues of forgiveness. Because Volf is not primarily thinking about needing forgiveness for small things, but the big things. During the interlude, Volf tells of his brother that was tragically killed when he was 5 because the aging nanny was not watching him, and then the soldier that was playing with him allowed a tragic (but preventable) accident to occur.  Volf’s parents from the beginning were intent on forgiveness. This in spite of the fact that Volf’s father had been tortured by the soldiers only a few years earlier (Volf grew up in communist Czechoslovakia.)

The forgiveness was so complete that Volf himself did not know that the nanny had been at all at fault until he was an adult. Volf’s father traveled for days to comfort the soldier and ensure that he would not be punished.

Volf is talking about the need for deep and real forgiveness for big things like war crimes, rape and murder because we also need forgiveness for the little things like lying and gossip. There were multiple examples of hard forgiveness because Volf’s theology of forgiveness was catalyzed during the war crimes and aftermath of the Bosnian and Croatian wars.

He is also clear that forgiveness is not pretending that something did not happen. The first step in forgiveness is bringing to full acknowledgement the actual sin committed. I stumbled across this long New York Times Article on how a family in Florida used this style of restorative justice in a case where their daughter’s boyfriend killed her. It is exactly the type of deep and difficult forgiveness that Volf is talking about because it is the way that the power of Christ can be shown.

Volf is very clear that forgiveness can only occur with the power of Christ and that it is really not us that is doing the forgiveness, but that God is inviting us to participate with him in giving and forgiving because it is a way that we can be changed and that giving, and especially forgiveness, demonstrates the love of Christ to others.

This is not an easy book to read.  It is one of the most important books I have read an a while. A lot of Christian books read more like self-help books. This is not a self-help book, this is a book that demonstrates the radical work of Christ and the radical nature of what it means to be a Christian.

I recommend a lot of books, but this is one that I would put at near the top of your reading list.

Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition 

Beautiful Ruins: A Novel by Jess Walter

I am reposting this 2014 review because the kindle version is on sale for $1.99 today only as one of the kindle deals of the day. There are a number of books on sale today that are worth looking at.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess WalterSummary: A beautifully written love story(ies) that spans 50 years.  Refreshingly, it is more focused on adult commitment than personal fulfillment.

Beautiful Ruins has had a lot of hype. It was nominated for two Audie Awards in 2013, it was NPR’s Fresh Air’s books of the Year, and Esquire Book of the Year, and a New York Times #1 Best Seller.

I alternated between Kindle and Audiobook (with more time in the audiobook.) Edoardo Ballerini was a perfect narrator.  His Italian sounded perfect (although I have zero ability to really evaluate it.)

Beautiful Ruins weaves together a number of stories. It starts with a young Italian inn owner in 1962 and a mysterious American actress that comes to his out of the way inn as a guest. It moves to a modern story of a movie producer and his assistant. It mixes in a number of storylines from 1962, current time and in between.

Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins

Reposting this 2015 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $1.99. The Audible.com Audiobook is $3.99 with purchase of the Kindle Edition.

The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins Book Review

Summary: At one point the church of the East was as strong, or stronger than the Church of the West, but then it started a slow decline under persecution.

Once again, with the recent comments by President Obama and the violence of ISIS, the crusades are back in the news. And it is again popular for the average person to pontificate about the history of something that they have not actually spent any time studying. Philip Jenkins is trying to solve that, or at least the problem of a lack of information.

The main focus of the The Lost History of Christianity is of the 1000 year history of the church of Asia and Africa from approximately the 4th to the 14th century.

The image on the cover is a stylized map of Jerusalem in the middle with the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa proceeding from it. At one point, there was far more balance in Christianity between the three continents than what is commonly understood today.

In the 4th century the great councils ruled on how to understand the divinity of Christ. The ‘winners’ of that fight we now call orthodox and the losers we call ‘heretics’.  But everyone did not simply adopt the creed. Much (but not all) of the Eastern church continued to identify with what we now call the Monophysite heresy. These Christians are now called Oriental Orthodox (as opposed to Eastern Orthodox who did accept Nicaea) or Nestorians. They believe that Jesus Christ has one nature, not two, and was wholly divine. Modern scholars do not find as much difference between the two camps as might be assumed and so Jenkins wants to keep the understanding of them as Christian on the table.

Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis

I am reposting this 2014 review because today only (Sunday Feb 12), Till We Have Faces is on sale for $2.95 on audiobook.
Takeaway: A story of regret and complaint, joy and pain. Much like the story of many of us.

As regular readers of this blog well know, I have been intentionally reading a lot of CS Lewis for about 18 months. Lewis is an icon of Christian literature. And there are few that can compete with the breadth of his work, from apologetics, to memoir, to children’s literature, to serious adult fiction, to serious academic work, to contemporary essays.

I first read Till We Have Faces nearly three years ago before this most recent reading. I liked it much more this time. I think I both understand Lewis and have more context than the previous reading and I think I probably read the book better.

Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the story of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of one of Psyche’s sisters. I didn’t really know the story of Cupid and Psyche before, and so I intentionally read several things about it before I re-read this to make sure I have the basics of the story in my head.

Books and Cuture had a good review by John McWhorter of a book on the history of jazz. The thing that has really stuck with me is McWhorter’s comments about a 1957 Looney Tune cartoon that riffed off of the three little pigs story with jazz musicians.

What McWhorter notes is that in order to understand the ‘Three Little Bops’ cartoon, the audience had to understand the original story of the three little pigs. And similarly, when jazz was popular music, the jazz solo was riffing off of a known melody and song. But as jazz has become a more ‘classical form’ it has taken more work to understand the original musical stories that are currently being riffed off of.

Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer

I am reposting this 2013 review. Let Your Life Speak, as well as A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life and The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life are all on sale for $3.99 on Kindle. I think this is a one day sale today.
Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

Over the past several months I have started meeting with a spiritual director.  This is a result of reading the Church of England series and several books on spiritual direction.  Since I clearly process through reading and writing about what I read, my spiritual director suggested I read something by Parker Palmer in part because I have such problem integrating the formalized Benedictine spirituality that I keep trying to move toward.  (If you can’t do it, try the opposite Quaker spiritual thought.)

So I started by listening to the audiobook of Palmer’s classic Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

Palmer’s idea that we do not always consciously know what we unconsciously speak of or our body unconsciously does follows the findings of behavior economics quite well.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Summary: Beautiful, tragic story of a temporary utopia that can never last.

Just over a year ago I listened to a short audiobook by Ann Patchett about marriage.  Since then I have wanted to read one of her longer fiction books.

But the descriptions of the books kept putting me off.  Her first book, the Patron Saint of Liars is about a home for unwed mothers.  Run is about a father trying to keep his children safe, The Magician’s Assistant is about widow who finds her former husband had a secret life.  All of her books seem to be about tragic subjects.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

Summary: A series of essays that shows why short form writing is still worth reading.

I am a sucker for a free book. A couple years ago, Audible gave away a the title essay of this book as a Christmas present to its members. That was the first time I had read anything by Ann Patchett. You can read that original review on Bookwi.se. Since then I have been interested in Patchett’s writing. I loved Bel Canto and I have been wanting to pick this complete volume up for a while.

Like most of my recent reading, I listened to the audiobook, with Patchett narrating.

Patchett starts the book with an introduction about how as a young novelist, she had to make a living. She tried a variety of jobs, which left her too tired to write, and a then teaching, which left her creatively drained. So she became a freelance essayist for a variety of magazines, starting with 17 and working her way up to the New York Times.

The introduction and several very good essays about advice for writers or her writing life, or the state of books that lead to her becoming co-owner of an independent bookstore were probably my favorite, in spite of the fact that I have never considered myself a writer nor do I aspire to become one in the future. But I am interested in the creative process and Patchett is unabashed in her advice and not afraid to talk about the areas that she thinks she has done well or done poorly.

The Second Coming: A Novel by Walker Percy

Reposting the review because Second Coming is on sale for $1.99 on kindle right now. Also his book Love in the Ruins is on sale for $2.81

The Second Coming by Walker PercyTakeaway: Evidently I am old enough to understand and appreciate mid-life crisis books.

Recently I have decided that I need to read more 20th century literary fiction. My eduction missed out on that entire century. And I also have been interested in the Catholic writers that were so popular in the mid to late 20th century.

Walker Percy has been republished by Open Road and has books easily available on Kindle (and from Lendle.me).

I didn’t realize when I started (and I don’t think it makes much of a difference) but The Second Coming is follow-up to The Last Gentleman. (I will get back and read that at some point.)

Will Barrett is middle aged, retired early, wealthy, and recently, a widower. This is a classic mid-life crisis book, one that I don’t think I would have appreciated as much as I do now even five years ago.

Allison is a young woman that has recently escaped from a mental hospital. She is schizophrenic, daughter of an old flame of Will’s, fabulously talented, but unable to cope with much of normal life.

Most of the book centers around Will Barrett’s internal drama. He is focused on the meaning of life, whether there is a God (and how God can be proved) and Barrett’s own history. Barrett’s (like Percy) father committed suicide when Will was a teen. Coupled with Barrett’s health problems, which are slowly revealed throughout the book, his thoughts take over his life.

Flight Behavior: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver – Favorites of 2012

Reposting because the kindle book is on sale for $1.99.
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(Comments were part of the 2012 best book series) I definitely have a trend in my favorite fiction books of the year of reading multiple books by the same author fairly close together.  I read Poisonwood Bible in November, Flight Behavior in December and I am almost finished with Prodigal Summer.

I read a good interview with Kingsolver a couple days ago. She summarizes her advice to younger authors that I think is why I love her writing. “I think that when people read fiction, they’re really reading for wisdom. I am. That’s what most of us really love. If we read a novel that rocks our world, it’s because there’s something in it that we didn’t know already. Not just information but really wisdom—sort of what to do with our information. And wisdom comes from experience, so…” (She gets around to saying quit smoking so you will live longer and become wise.)

Flight Behavior: A NovelSummary: An incredible novel of an Appalachian woman that comes to see the world as it is instead of the world that she thought she knew.

Earlier this year I finally got around to reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible. I was admittedly reluctant. Kingsolver writes Literary Fiction.  Her books are serious, often heavy works of fiction that, while really beautiful prose and rich lyrical stories, also have a point. It is like being told to eat your vegetables because they are good for you.

So while I really did look forward to reading this, it took me a little while to actually get started.  Recently I have looked forward to happy, funny books that make me feel good. Maybe it is the fact that I am getting older or more resistant to easy fix world that too many embrace.

Kingsolver does not embrace the quick fix. She embraces a full look at the hard world that is around us.  But as amazing as it is to me, her writing does not feel like propaganda. It feels like a beautiful piece of art. Yes there is meaning there, but the meaning is not crude, it does not hit you over the head like a club. Instead you can see the beauty of the art and somehow that beauty is made greater because it is has a serious subject.

Flight Behavior is narrated by a young woman from the eastern Tennessee Appalachian mountains. She is the definition of poor. Both her parents died when she was in high school, she got pregnant and quickly married and moved into her in-laws home. Her husband is a good, but uninspiring man. Her children 5 and 18 months (the first pregnancy ended in a late term still birth) are the joy of her life.  She still lives on the edge of her in-laws property. They have almost no income, very little opportunity and an absence of hope.

One day, Dellarobia Turnbow (the protagonist) decides to throw away her marriage and meet a man to have an affair, she comes upon an amazing sight. It appears that the entire mountain valley above her house is on fire, but not consumed (she connects it to Moses’ burning bush). She comes to her senses and goes home before meeting the man and without understanding what she has seen.