Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Books I Read in December


Some readers I know set goals and begin every month with a list of books to read.  I think that’s awesome, but at least at this point in my life, I’m not like that.  I have a ridiculously long “to-read” list on Goodreads, and each month I read almost randomly, depending on which books are available at the library or lent to me by friends, and also depending on how I feel at the moment.

Truth be told, though I want my reading to be evenly balanced between fiction and nonfiction, and if anything leaning toward nonfiction, in reality the scales are usually tipped toward fiction, especially in a stressful month like December.  When life around the holidays is crazy busy and Brennan is inexplicably fussy, I usually don’t read until all the kids are in bed for the night, and then only for a few minutes to unwind before I go to bed myself.  The book that’s made to order for nights like that is a well-written novel with excellent characterization and a low-intensity plot.

So December turned out completely unplanned to be the month of historical fiction, in particular books set during wartime, beginning in WWII and working progressively back to WWI and then the Civil War.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

I discovered this book the first week in December and loved it.  Jamie Ford is a brilliant writer, with beautiful descriptions of setting and characters.  This book shed light on the treatment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, something I’d read briefly about but never thought over at length, and it was both intriguing and sad to consider more fully how in time of war we often justify racism and oppression.  The romance in this book was tender and nuanced, and the story was so realistic that up until the end I had no idea if the author was going to pull a happy or sad ending, knowing that either would be bittersweet.  I would highly recommend this book.

In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose MacColl

This was my next discovery, set in France during WWI, and drawing attention to the work of women doctors and nurses, and also to the number of soldiers executed.  Anyone who like me is a Downton Abbey fan may remember the fate of Mrs. Patmore’s nephew, I think it was, who was executed as a coward and refused any honorable mention after the war.  This book explored more fully the story behind the tragic number of men wrongfully killed by their own countrymen.

I also liked this book because it alternated between two time periods and the story worked with the contrast between the two.  The characterization was excellent and the story really interesting, though I did feel like the ending was a bit of a bait and switch and called into question whether certain chapters were necessary or just there to be misleading to the reader.

The development of feminism was a theme in this book (warning: tangent coming) and got me thinking in a particular direction about it.  At one point there is a sentence about one character who chooses to give up a promising career as a doctor in order to become a mother, and is therefore “hiding her light under a bushel.”  This struck me as ironic, particularly in the case of becoming a doctor or nurse—the premise of that entire career should be to serve and help and influence other people, just like a mother or father serves their children.  Why is it considered “hiding a light under a bushel” to choose to influence people one way and not another way, if really service is the entire purpose?

The problem of course is that service is not the purpose.  As depicted in this book, it’s a worthy byproduct if as a nurse during WWI you can help the soldiers, but ultimately it is about furthering your own medical career so you can become a doctor after the war.  But why are you wanting to be a doctor if it’s not about laying down your life for other people?  What’s it about then?  Your own fulfillment?

There is much I honestly appreciate about the feminist movement, but this lie has often been central—that self-fulfillment comes before service, and that’s why careers of real influence and significant change (motherhood being one of them) are often considered “less than” compared to careers where there may be more accolades and immediate fulfillment.  As Christians I think we are right to criticize feminism in this vein—life isn’t about seeking fulfillment but about serving others, the irony of course being that in serving others we find our deepest fulfillment and our greatest development as people.

But here, though, is where I think Christians can go wrong—we can be so critical of feminism and so passionate that women should be about serving others instead of pursuing their own fulfillment, but we stop there, and feminists have every right to think we are sexist and cry foul.  Because really, every person, man or woman, should be about laying their life down for the good of others.  Life isn’t about furthering our own self-interest, but about making significant change by impacting others.  This isn’t just a women’s issue, and we’re hypocritical when we make it one.

I know in this argument I’ve painted with a broad brush and there a lot of nuances here, but what do you think?


Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

I finally got to this classic!  And it’s so long, I needed most of Christmas break to read it.  I’m sure so much ink has been spilled in literary criticism of this book that I don’t have much to add, but here are some thoughts:

  • The style is so descriptive and long-winded it reminded me of Dickens, except that it’s much less caricatured and more understanding of its female characters, and really all its characters.  This novel is brilliant in its understanding of human nature, what motivates us and how we change.
  • I watched the movie several years before I read the book, so I don’t remember it in detail, but really this story is so long and has so many parts that an entire television show should be made about it.  Seriously.  Season 1 could depict antebellum life and Scarlett’s flirtatious escapades and disappointments as a teenager, ending with the beginning of the Civil War.  Season 2 could show the Civil War from the perspective of Atlanta and end with Scarlett’s fateful return to Tara.  Season 3 could show the horrors of Sherman’s march, the near starvation of formerly wealthy plantation owners, and the hard work of those who tried to find their footing again, ending with Scarlett’s marriage to Rhett.  And so forth.  This book covers so much ground and carries the reader along with loyalty to its characters, just like a good show.
  • This book should be required American Literature reading for high school students.  It gives a nuanced look at the South during a time of tremendous upheaval just before, during, and after the Civil War.  Included in this story are the sometimes subtle racism of even kind masters, the way women were trained to fit a certain mold and employ even false pretenses to uphold antebellum social order, the tragedy of a war that could have been avoided, the monumental loss of life even when faced with certain defeat, the idolatry of the Confederate cause, the injustices of the Reconstruction that drove even honorable men to join the Ku Klux Klan, and so on.
  • For a book that is over one thousand pages long, I expected a better ending.  Really.  This story is beautifully told but it’s painful because so many of the major characters are sympathetic yet self-destructive, and I kept wanting to step into the book and shake them.  This story looks at marriage (several in fact) gone terribly wrong.  So don’t pick it up for a light and encouraging read.  But it is brilliantly insightful.

The only nonfiction I got to this month was:

The Meaning of Marriage by Tim and Kathy Keller

I’m only halfway through this book so I can’t write a thorough review.  So far, it’s my favorite marriage book ever, so much so that I ordered my own copy to give to Ben for Christmas (we have a habit of giving to each other what we hope will be shared back, like my receiving an amazing cooking spatula and smoked salmon … ahem).  I quit reading it halfway through because I wanted to start over and read it together with Ben and talk about it.  So far, lots of great insights here.  I like Tim Keller because he’s honestly and thoughtfully Biblical, and yet avoids the stereotypes and simplistic arguments that sometimes “Biblical” authors fall into.  He’s well-read and well-researched and thinks things through.


I expect in the next few months my reading will tilt back the nonfiction direction, primarily because of this: when I find a good fiction book to read, I put it on hold at the library, but when I find a good nonfiction book, the library often doesn’t have it, so I put it on my Amazon wish list.  My birthday and Christmas fall close together, so in the past few weeks my Amazon wish list took the form of many, many good books gifted to me, and I can’t wait to get to them all.  So here’s an upcoming list:

  • Simply Tuesday by Emily Freeman
  • Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles by Kathy Keller
  • For the Love by Jen Hatmaker
  • Courtship in Crisis by Thomas Umstattd
  • The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson
  • Treasuring Christ when Your Hands Are Full: Gospel Meditations for Busy Moms by Gloria Furman

Whoa, that looks almost like a list of goals instead of my normal random reading.  We’ll see what happens!
What have you been reading this month?  Tell me your recommendations!

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