January 10, 2019

  1. Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (2004, historical narrative) – This is historical nonfiction written like a novel, and I loved it. If you’re expecting only a history of the World’s Columbian Exposition (a.k.a. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair), be forewarned: It’s ALSO about a serial killer, and there are some grisly details. But if you’re expecting a thrilling murder mystery, you should also be forewarned: The author doesn’t stray much (at all) from the known facts, and so the story never gets as macabre as some may hope (or so I’ve gathered from reading other reviews for this book). Also, the author spends a LOT of time on the architecture of the fair and the politics surrounding it. I found it fascinating, but the book definitely focuses more heavily on those details than on Holmes and his string of murders.
  2. What is the Mission of the Church by Greg Gilbert & Kevin DeYoung (2011, theology) – If you pay attention to theological books, you may know that this one is a little controversial. I happened to really like and appreciate it, but it does take some strong opinions on some issues that many people in the church seem to be taking strong opinions on these days: specifically the ideas of mission and the kingdom of God. I’ve read a fair amount about those things over the last couple of years, and some books are kind of prettily poetic and philosophical in how they approach those issues, while this book takes a clearly-reasoned, biblically-supported look at them, which was really refreshing. It helped me sort out some of the confusing messages I’d been hearing elsewhere, and I’m really thankful that this one was recommended to me.
  3. The Yellow Crocus by Laila Ibrahaim (2014, historical fiction) – This book is…fine. It’s sweet and kind of interesting, but the writing is very simplistic, and so is the story. Also, if you read it, please note that it is not actually a true story, but the author writes as though it is, which feels misleading. (In the epilogue one of the characters refers to it as a true story, but in the author’s notes it’s clear that it’s a work of fiction, though based on historical realities.) Anyway, I also read The Invention of Wings in 2018 (see number three in Part Two), and as far as stories about relationships between slaves and young white women go, I thought that was a better book.
  4. Divided Minds: Twin Sisters & Their Journey Through Schizophrenia by Pamela Spiro Wagner and Carolyn Spiro (2006, memoir) – Oh boy. This was rough. On the one hand, it is absolutely remarkable that Pamela (the schizophrenic twin) was able to write about her experiences with such lucidity. She is a marvelous writer (not just in this book — she is an award-winning poet as well), and the insights into what it feels like to be as mentally ill as she is were fascinating. On the other hand, this entire book broke my heart. I wanted to reach into the lives of each of the twins and hug them and bring them alongside me and show them the love of Jesus and somehow take away all of their pain and hurt and make life feel full and happy and normal for them. There is a section near the end, written by Carolyn, when she imagines other families gathering together for the holidays, and the happy memories those families share and create, and she mourns the fact that her family will never ever experience the holidays like that. Schizophrenia reached its fingers into every aspect of their lives, sapping both sisters of their emotional, mental, and even physical strength, and by the end of the book I also felt emotionally weary. I’m thankful for the book and the compassion it stirred in me, but I wish there was more hope for both of these precious women.
  5. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (2007, WWII fiction) – Yes, yes, this is a YA book. The next one is as well. I homeschooled my kids last semester and these were on their recommended reading lists, and I read them so we could talk about them together. I almost didn’t include them on this list, but they are books, after all, and they took up time and mental space to read, so there you have it. I’m counting them. Anyhow, this book is terribly sad and has an awful ending. Then again, WWII was terribly sad and had countless awful endings. You’ll hear different opinions about the narration of this book. I happen to like stories with unreliable narrators (see number four in Part One), and I think that’s what this book does well — there’s the story that young Bruno is telling, and then there’s the story that we as readers understand, although sometimes it’s unclear if we’re understanding correctly because he’s not understanding correctly. It’s a really fast read, and it does a good job showing how the war stretched its cruel shadow into every aspect of life at the time, even into the lives of those who believed they ought to be immune.
  6. The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (1997, historical fiction) – I actually really liked this one. Like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, we have a child narrator again, and to similar effect. The overall tone is quite funny most of the time, but shifts appropriately as the story takes a darker turn. Among other things, ten-year old Kenny witnesses racially-motivated violence near the end of the book, and after many chapters of humor, the author’s tenderhearted treatment of Kenny’s reaction brought me to tears. This was on my son’s fifth grade reading list, and it’s a good one.
  7. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (2014, fiction) – I feel like you know what you’re going to get when you pick up this book. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s shallow, it’s kind of exhausting. The characters are under-developed and the materialism is over-the-top. It’s a surprisingly long book for how little happens in terms of actual story, and after all those pages, the ending feels abrupt and rushed. I’d like to say that I wish the author had given me some characters with more substance, but I don’t think that was really the point. I think the point was to enjoy all the decadence, in which case I wish it had been a fraction as long. There’s only so long you can really care about the millions of dollars that non-existent people spend on their couture wardrobes.
  8. Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (2015, fiction) – While traveling through Indiana on our road trip around the country, we happened to visit the spectacularly beautiful campus of Notre Dame, and at my parents’ suggestion we happened to go to the amazing Notre Dame bookstore, and while there I happened to judge this book by its cover. Positively, that is. I judged it positively, which, it turns out, can be just as big a mistake as judging a book negatively by its cover. I bought this book because it looked cool, and for much of the book I thought it was cool, but then it ended and I just felt sad. Not stirred-to-the-depths-of-my-soul sadness. Just….empty-sad. In Stephen King’s book On Writing (see number fourteen of Part One) he talks about creating a story by taking two interesting ideas and having them intersect. This book took one interesting idea — a survivalist father feels sad about life and kidnaps his teenage daughter and takes her into the wilderness to live — and….that’s it. That’s all the story is. They live in the wilderness, she believing that the rest of the world has been destroyed, and everything becomes increasingly terrible until it ends. There’s no point, and there’s no character development. The writing is quite lovely and haunting, but it’s also very very empty.
  9. None Like Him by Jen Wilkin (2016, theology) – SO GOOD. I loved it. Jen Wilkin has good thinking skills and good writing skills and she’s using both for God’s glory. The book is wise and occasionally quite funny, and it lays down both heavy truths and words of comfort. This is one of those books that has actually gotten into my head and my heart and changed the way I think about my relationship with God. I can’t wait to read her follow-up book, In His Image.
  10. How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims {a} (2016, parenting) – Oh man. Every parent needs to read this book (or listen to it, as the case may be). Julie Lythcott-Haims is a treasure trove of knowledge and practical wisdom, sharing statistics, studies, and anecdotal evidence from conversations with others, from her work as an academic dean at Stanford, and from her own experience as a mother. She talks about the dangers of helicopter parenting, and the ways we’re depriving our kids of their childhoods while also failing to give them the necessary tools to be successful, independent adults. And yet it’s not a depressing book. I felt like it was very empowering, that it gave permission to not micro-manage our kids’ lives or to worry about them over-much when they struggle or even fail at something. The section on college admissions (and the college ranking system), was especially fascinating.
  11. The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien (1955, fiction/fantasy) – One of my all-time faves. As far as read-alouds go (I read this to my older two boys), it really is long, so be prepared to commit. And Tolkien was really in love with the landscape. Reading those parts to oneself doesn’t take too long, but I actually skipped over some of the landscape descriptions so I wouldn’t lose my boys’ interest. But that caveat aside, I adore this book. I love the themes of love and sacrifice, the way the characters behave bravely and lay down their lives for each other, their steadiness in the face of darkness. Frodo’s name is taken from an Old English word that means “wise by experience,” and I love that theme in this book — that wisdom is not a shallow thing that comes through ease, but through sacrifice and difficulty and loss. There are so many wonderful lines in the book, but this is one of my favorites, when Sam and Frodo are at one of the darkest points in their journey: “There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.” I love when fantasy can tell the truest stories, and this book does that. It is full of nobility and dignity and love for things that are pure and good and right.
  12. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn (2017, historical fiction) – First things first: I was about three-quarters of the way through this book before realizing that it is based on a true story. The main characters are fictional, but the Alice Network (a network of female spies during WWI) was real, and many of the characters and events in this book really existed. The character of Alice herself is extremely accurate, many of her lines of dialogue taken directly from true accounts of her life. Knowing this made a huge impact on my enjoyment of the book, and it was totally fascinating to read through the author’s end-notes, which included many excerpts from firsthand accounts about the people and events in the book. It made for a really compelling story, but I do have two complaints. The main character (well, one of the two — the younger one) was written with too much of a modern, millennial sensibility, and the author also chose to write that character as a mathematician but you kind of get the impression that maybe the author isn’t actually good at math. So there’s that. (The older female character was written much better, as was her backstory.) And my other complaint is that the sexual content is pretty high and sometimes explicit, which is too bad because I’d love to hand this book to my fourteen year old son and say “Hey, read about these incredible women who defied stereotypes and did amazing things”….but I am definitely not going to hand this book to my fourteen year old son.
  13. Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content by Ann Handley (2014, writing/marketing) – This book is part marketing how-to (which isn’t my thing, see number eight in Part One), and part writing how-to. As the title says, everybody writes — whether you’re just sending texts and emails or whether you’re writing the email campaign for your company — and so it’s worth knowing how to do it well. The book clips along quickly, with lots of small short chapters interspersed among the longer ones. Ann Handley has a fun sense of humor and a very practical, down-to-earth way of thinking about things, and I enjoyed her book. (The final section, which gives advice on the best ways to post on various social media platforms, already feels a tad outdated, and could probably be skimmed or skipped.)
  14. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952, fiction) – It’s funny that I’d never read any Hemingway before, especially since he’s somebody who people — and particularly writers — love to quote. As a writer, you hear quotes like these bandied about: “Write drunk, edit sober” (which he probably never said), and “The first draft of anything is shit” (which he probably did). Not all of his (supposed) quotes are snarky, though, not by a long shot. He also said wise things like these: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self,” and “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places,” and “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.” That last one is from The Old Man and the Sea, which is a fast and easy read and (I hope) a good introduction to Hemingway. I’m not entirely sure what the point of this book was. I read some reviews full of highfalutin ideas, which is kind of funny because the book itself is very simple, and so is its main character. What I liked about it is the message that things are meant to be hard, not easy, and that the more difficult something is, the more we ought to endure, not give up. Then again, that message ends up feeling a bit hollow because after all is said and done, all of the old man’s work amounts to nothing, which just feels terribly sad. But I like the old man, I like the boy who cares for him, and I like Hemingway’s description of the sea. Given how short it is, you couldn’t possibly go wrong picking up a copy. (And then tell me what you think it’s really about.)


And that concludes 2018! I’m already plugging away at a couple of books to start off 2019, although my goal this year is to actually read LESS, in hopes of writing more. In January of next year, I’ll let you know how that went. Until then, cheers and happy reading!



2018 Book Review – Part III

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