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

Reposting because the kindle book is on sale for $1.99.
(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.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

My first introduction to Cormac McCarthy was the movie version of No Country for Old Men. My sister-in-law had read the book before the movie and told me the movie was very faithful to the book. So I did not have a pressing desire to read the book.

I found No Country for Old Men at my library on audiobook so I decided to pick it up anyway.

It is wonderful.  Yes, the movie is very close to the story.  But I love the language.  I am sure I am influenced by the fact that I listened to this as an audiobook. The narrator, Tom Stechschulte, was among the best that I have ever heard. Some narrators just seem to match the book, and Tom Stechschulte was perfect for the voices No Country For Old Men.

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

Reposting this 2014 review because an omnibus Kindle Edition of the series is on sale for $1.99. This works out to $0.50 a story. This series is four different styles of science fiction that all fit together in a broad scope. You might want to read all four reviews before picking up the book. This is the lowest price the omnibus edition has ever been.
Summary: Two long lived people interact, love and fight over generations.

Wild Seed is now the fourth book and the start of the second series I have read by Octavia Butler. She is a good writer and creates interesting (and wildly different) settings and characters.

But Butler is also hard to read at times. Not particularly unusually among fantasy and science fiction authors, she uses her settings to create alternative social structures and explore issues of ethics and morality.

Butler is known for her feminist writing. While not all men are evil, all of the books I have read from her so far have explored the ideas of male oppression of women.

Wild Seed is about two long lived people. Doro has the power to move from one body to another, living forever, but needing to ‘feed’ on those around him both to stay alive and because of an innate need. Because of his long life (he has been alive for over 4000 years), he has created breeding programs to breed special powers into his ‘children’. These settlements, first in Africa and then later in the Americas, are scattered, but allow him to live as a God. Worshiped by his children, who will willingly give up their bodies for their God.

While the World Watched by Carolyn Maull McKinstry with Denise George

Summary: It is important to remember that it was normal every day people, not just civil rights heroes that participated in the Civil Rights movement.

A few weeks ago, my pastor, while talking about the historicity of the gospel accounts of Jesus, mentioned that in seminary in the 1980s one of his professors suggested that within 20 to 30 years, once the survivors of the Holocaust started to die off, people would increasingly question whether the Holocaust actually happened.  And now about 30 years after that professor’s aside we can see that Holocaust deniers are increasing around the world.  My fear is that we will start having a similar denial of Civil Rights horrors.

It is one reason that I think that While the World Watched is an important book.  Carolyn Maull McKinstry was a good friend to and the same age as the four girls that died in the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.  She had left the bathroom where the girls died only a minute or so before the bomb went off.

Over the first several chapters, McKinstry slowly tells the story of that morning in short snippits while giving background to her life and community before that day.  I think the method isn’t a bad one, because the reader is picking up the book because of that day.  But in order to really understand the day, we need to have context to understand what was really happening.  So the first four chapters are a little slow in unfolding the overall story.

But once that central story of the book is told, if anything the book becomes even more important.  Carolyn Maull McKinstry was just an average 14 year old.  She was born into an educated family (both of her parents and both of her mother’s parents had college degrees). Both of her parents worked with good jobs. But this is a story of an average girl. She did not have a special seat at the Civil Rights movement’s table.

Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir by Carolyn Weber (Read Again Review)

I am reposting this 2013 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $1.99. I really love this book.
Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir

Takeaway: The love story, whether between man and woman or God and human is one that brings joy to those that have experienced it.

I have said it before.  But one of the things I most love about blogging is that I have grown to ‘know’ so many authors. It is a distant knowing.  I have yet to meet any of them in person. But Matt Anderson, John Dyer, Rhett Smith, Tyler Braun, Karen Swallow Prior and Carolyn Weber (and others) I have interacted with beyond their books. It is not merely using one another for page views and book sales. With social media and some longer conversations I feel like I can actually enter into their lives, at least in a small part.

Carolyn had a baby boy this past year and we exchange the occasionally pleasantries. Carolyn has on several occasions thanked me for a blog post or review, and there are very few things that make my day more than an author I love (especially Carolyn) making appreciative comments on my writing.  The internet is such an odd world.

So on this second reading of Surprised by Oxford I am not coming at the book fresh.  The first time I picked it up because of good reviews and a free review copy. The second time I had more invested  I had purchased a couple copies for friends. Some had liked it and some had not. I now knew what was going to happen. These were people that I had some understanding about, both the characters from the memoir and the real people that inhabit the current world because these are people that I potentially could meet.

My last reading, I was most struck by the beauty of the words. Carolyn Weber writes beautiful, evocative prose. That is no less true this time. But most of what stuck me was the story. It was not new, but for some reason I wanted to savor the poems that the characters were sharing. (And I am not a poetry guy, the fact that I found myself re-reading poems should speak very highly of this book.) I was more invested in Caro and TDH (Tall, Dark and Handsome)’s occasional romance.

The God I Don’t Understand by Christopher Wright

Reposting this 2013 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $2.99.
The God I Don't Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith

Takeaway: It is fine (and biblical) to admit we do not understand God.

I have recently discovered the blog Black, White and Gray. Bradley Wright (links to reviews of his books below) and a couple of other Christian Sociologists talk about statistics and sociology of Christianity. When I started The God I Don’t Understand I had just read the third of a four part series about research into Deconversion. Each of the posts were interesting and I would really recommend reading them to get past a lot of myths about why people leave Christianity.

The third post was about Christians responding badly to doubt. Of the 50 deconverts that wrote testimonies of their deconversion that were analysed, 42 mentioned frustrations with Christians they knew. The problem was not primarily misbehavior or hypocritical attitudes as I would have assumed, but frustration with how Christians respond to doubt.

Having finished The God I Don’t Understand, I would highly recommend it as a book that properly responds to doubt. Christopher Wright is an Anglican Priest and professor and the head of the foundation that John Stott started to encourage pastoral education in the developing world. This is the second book I have read by him recently and I will be reading more. Christopher Wright (no relation to NT Wright) is wonderfully pastoral in his approach, but even more important he is incredibly biblical. Christopher Wright specializes in teaching Old Testament theology and more naturally than any other scholar I have read, talks about the bible as a single grand narrative of which the Old Testament cannot be removed.

The Grace Outpouring: Blessing Others Through Prayer by Roy Godwin with Dave Roberts

Summary: A wandering, but very encouraging story of how obedience can be used by God.

I know that some dismiss books that are written ‘with…’.  These are books where a person has a story to tell but does not have the time (and usually skill) to tell it well in book form.  Whenever I have hear automatic dismissal I think of the work that John and Elizabeth Sherrill did in bring the stories of Brother Andrew, Corrie Ten Boom, David Wilkerson and many others where their names did not clearly appear in the ‘with…’ section.

I do want to say clearly, that while I am supportive of people like the Sherrills and Dave Roberts in this book, I think these cowriters need to always be acknowledged and Christian publishers in particular need to stop the practice of hidden ghost writers.

In the Grace Outpouring, Roy Godwin tells the story of how God has used him and the Ffald-y-Brenin retreat center in Wales to bless others and bring God’s power to the people that visit the retreat center, the community around the retreat center, and even people that have never been there.

Testimony stories like this are an important part of Christian literature.  Sometimes I can forget how important a part they are.  These types of books are usually not great literary works, but instead are simple narratives of Gods work in normal people’s lives.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Takeaway: Justice requires working systems. Part of working systems is adequate defense and reasonable sentencing.

No one that I know that has read this has rated it less than 5 stars.

Bryan Stevenson is the head of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery Alabama. Somewhat similar to the International Justice Mission that focuses on bringing justice and legal assistance to people around the world, EJI works to bring legal assistance to death row and other prisoners.

Stevenson deftly weaves the broader story of his life and work around one main story of an innocent death row inmate that was knowingly condemned to death and EJI’s work to prove his innocence and win him clemency.

Primarily this is a story of how our justice system is not equal. Poverty and race (and small town justice) often come together to produce not justice, but scapegoats.

This book came out before the Black Lives Matter movement started, but it is a good primer for the broader justice issues in the US.

Stevenson also does not spend much time on his own faith, but it is clear that his own Christian faith is a driving factor in giving him motivation and hope for his work. And I think that it is an interesting book to compare with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ by Dallas Willard

Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of ChristSummary: An extended reflection on what it means to truly change through Christ’s power.

Dallas Willard is one of the originators of the modern spiritual formation movement.  Willard, and his protege, Richard Foster, have done much to refocus the Evangelical world on spiritual disciplines and intentional focus on spiritual growth.

Renovation of the Heart is the most comprehensive book I have read by Willard on the why and how of truly changing (and he means heart, mind and actions).  As I read the book, I kept thinking of Paul’s thoughts in Romans 7:15 about doing what he does not want to do and not doing what he wants to do.

Willard responds to this common frustration not by creating a five step program or some other silver bullet, but a fairly detailed discussion of what it means to really change.  This is a fairly dense book.  I spent more than three weeks working on it and really I am not sure how to review it.

On the positive side, there is real spiritual wisdom here.  On the negative side, there is a lot of rabbit trails and it could have been organized better.  I also listened to the book as an audiobook read by Willard himself.  He is not the best reader and I think even if he had been a good reader, this is content that should be read in print, not listened to on audio.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Reposting this 2012 review because the Kindle version is on sale for $1.99 as part of a kids’ daily deal. Full list of the daily deal books is here.

CoralineSummary: Coraline finds the perfect parents and life in a creepy children’s book.

Neil Gaiman is a force within the fantasy book world. Gaiman original was a comic book artist and writer.  He is best known for Sandman.  In the early 2000s Gaiman primarily became a novelist.  American Gods (and its semi-sequel Anansi Boys), Stardust, and the British Mini-Series/Novel Neverwhere all sold well and are well known.

But prior to Coraline, I have only read the adult books (but I have read all of his adult books.)  Coraline is a children’s book in a similar vein and style as Gaiman’s adult books.  Gaiman write dark novels that are heavily influenced by fairy tales and full of literary references.

Coraline is a 9 year old girl, who in defiance of her mother goes into a empty apartment in their building and finds another apartment that is an exact duplicate of hers, except better.  Her parents are there, sort of, and her room and toys and everything else.

But as with any creepy story, things are not as they seem.  Her ‘other parents’ have buttons sewed on there eyes.  The cat in her neighborhood can move back and forth between the worlds.  And in the ‘other world’ it can talk.  And it warns her to leave.

Once she escapes, she comes back to find that her real parents are no longer there.  Eventually she realizes that they have been kidnapped and she has to go save them. Unsurprisingly, with the help of the cat she does.

This is a creepy story probably appropriate for most 10-12 year olds. Its reading level is listed as 3rd grade and Gaiman says he read it to his six year old. As a read aloud it is probably appropriate down to 6 or 7 if the child likes creepy stories. It is roughly based on the idea of Hanzel and Gretel. Coraline finds the spirits of other children that have been captured before. And those spirits are dead. So be aware of the content warning.

Like many children’s books is revolves around the idea that the adults in their world are not able to save them. Coraline has to save not only herself, but her parents as well. I have heard adults complain that this common theme in children’s literature is anti-family. However, I think it is part of the growing up process. Children read about being independent before they are fully independent themselves.

Coraline is initially excited about her new family because she feels like her real family does not pay enough attention to her. But she soon comes to realize that her real family loves her for her, not for what she can do for them. In the end, Coraline returns to her family and is able to be a child again.  There is a sense of security that even if she does not feel all the time throughout the book, it is understood that she should have this security.

Coraline Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

Other Reviews of Neil Gaiman books