Friday, April 1, 2016

Books I Read in March



This month I got a little more reading done!  After spending so much of February exploring middle school novels in preparation for the class I teach, it was nice to get back to adult stories and discover some really interesting ones. 

I spent a week in Williamsburg where my in-laws spoiled me and let me rest my foot while they helped with the cooking and the kids.  (Yes, in other news, I still can’t walk, but maybe I’ll write a post about that another time.)

So vacation was the perfect place to get a little fun reading done.  That explains the number of novels I read this month, though there was some good nonfiction, too.  I’m in the middle of two excellent nonfiction books.

One is Never Say No: Raising Big-Picture Kids by Mark and Jan Foreman (parents of the two brothers Jon and Tim of Switchfoot).  I am almost done with this book and wanted to finish it by the end of March so that I could include it in this review—but I didn’t quite get there.  So far this is my favorite parenting book ever, so you will definitely want to stay tuned for my April blog post to read my amazing review, right?  Right.  (Tongue-in-cheek self-promotion there.)

The other nonfiction book I’m reading is A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World by Paul Miller.  This one has really stretched me, especially since I’m in a season when God is saying no to my repeated prayer for healing.  Last year I learned a lot about Bible study, and I wonder if this year God is wanting to work on my prayer life.  I’m almost finished with this one, too, but the review will have to wait.

Here are the books I did read this month:


One of the main reasons I read stories (true or fiction) is to develop empathy.  I want to grow both my head and my heart by learning about the perspectives and experiences of people in real-life situations I may never face.

This was one of those empathy-developing books—a fictional story based on real-life circumstances, about a woman who escapes Taliban-ruled Afghanistan with her three children.  The early part of this book explores what it is like to grow up as a woman in Afghanistan, where education is not guaranteed and marriage is arranged.  Most of the book focuses on the harrowing adventures of the family as they attempt to get to London.  Told from the perspective of the mother and her teenage son, the story explores what it’s like to be an illegal refugee, searching for a home and freedom while threatened by government authorities that should instead be protecting and helping.

This is a fascinating story.  It’s not political propaganda, but primarily a good story about human experience, and it doesn’t touch on American politics at all.  That said, I think it sheds light on the immigration debate by encouraging us to be more open-minded and to consider the experiences of others.

 

This book was recommended by a friend and I began it rather tentatively, ready to stop at any moment and afraid it would be cynical and sensationalist—“here’s the dirt on the author of the Declaration of Independence!”  Instead, I found this to be a very sensitive and sympathetic historical fiction novel.  The author did extensive research and frequently quotes from original sources, and then her story imagines what may have gone on in the hearts and minds of the characters while the historical events were taking place.

Sally Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress.  I hadn’t realized before reading this book just how common it was in that era to have slave mistresses, and how the result of this was a weird twisting of the family tree, so that one’s slaves might be their half-brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, or in-laws.  After a few generations, the slaves might be more white than African, bearing close resemblance to their owners.

Sally Hemings, for instance, was three-fourths European, and the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s deceased wife, whom she no doubt resembled.  However, her one-fourth African blood was enough to condemn her to a lifetime of slavery and to make marriage and equality between her and Jefferson impossible.

She was the aunt of Thomas Jefferson’s daughters, and her children by Jefferson were 7/8 white.  No doubt they closely resembled him, but how crazily wrong is it that the children of the President of the United States were slaves because their great-grandmother was African?!

Though this story was clear about how Thomas Jefferson really messed up, it also depicts him sympathetically—the system was so corrupt that marrying your slave mistress or recognizing your slave children could be the equivalent of signing a death warrant for all involved.  The safer option was to keep everything quiet and to face the dilemma—do you keep the family together and enslaved in the South, or do you quietly send them North where they gain freedom, but only at the price of a new identity?

Another fascinating, empathy-building story.  (And also a reminder that the “good old days” maybe weren’t all that great … when our Founding Fathers were keeping concubines in closets and killing each other in duels.  But I digress …)


I wanted to like this book more than I did, and was a little disappointed.  I’m pretty sure the author is a Christian, as well as an avid Jane Austen fan.  This story of a chef trying to rediscover her artistry was like Jane Austen meets Ratatouille, with a dash of family drama and romance—what’s not to like?

This story was really fun to read, and I enjoyed it and would recommend it.  Maybe I was a bit distracted (not like I have any distractions in my life, but, you know, hypothetically …) and at times I lost track of the character development—for instance, the two sisters would have a sudden argument that didn’t seem warranted or character-driven, more like the author was following her plot points and the next one was “sisters must argue.”  So at times it seemed a little artificial and forced to me, and I had a hard time fully relating to the characters for that reason.

The Christian slant on the story was a bit confusing to me, too.  It’s unclear whether any of the characters are Christians.  They talk about God in a vague way and wonder why He allows bad things to happen (in this case, one of the sisters has cancer).  They don’t seem to have a deep personal faith, and there is no conversion point.  However, they live like Christians—for instance, one sister is in a dating relationship without a hint of sex.  I appreciated how that made the book G-rated, but I also felt like it wasn’t fully realistic or explained.  I really dislike trite conversion scenes, but I wanted to see the faith of the characters explored more—do they really believe in God, why or why not, and how does that impact their lives?  What’s the connection there?


This one I’m afraid I can’t recommend at all—which is sad because I generally like Liane Moriarty’s novels as both fun and meaningful, such as What Alice Forgot.  This one was just really shallow, the ending was disappointing, and though I didn’t feel like any of the scenes were blatantly offensive, the story definitely toed the line of trashy at multiple points.

The only reason I kept reading was because of a subplot in which a character was struggling with postpartum depression to the point of considering suicide.  I sympathized so much with her and wanted so badly for her to get better that I kept reading.  But my sentiment at the end of the novel was basically, “Ugh, really?”  It seemed like just a lot of privileged people spinning their wheels in life.  Definitely not a great story.

Sorry to end on a sour note there … my next novel is The Sweetness of Tears by Nafisa Haji, and so far it’s very interesting.  What about you?  What have you read this month?

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