Friday, November 27, 2020

Let's Bust a Recap : Something Wicked This Way Comes


"First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren't rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say."

So begins this 1962 offering from author Ray Bradbury. I really wanted to post about this book in October because it is the quintessential October book, but publishing my recap of Something Wicked This Way Comes on Black Friday seemed like the next best option. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? 

Well, anyway, Something Wicked This Way Comes is about 13-almost-14 year old best friends and neighbors Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway. When a traveling carnival comes suddenly and mysteriously into town, the boys find themselves inside a nightmare come to life, and in the process must face their personal demons, hang tight to their friendship, and help one another against the outside forces which threaten to transmogrify their lives forever. (How do you like that word "transmogrify"? I just discovered it. It's basically a creepy way of saying change.)

And I loved it. 

It was just creepy enough for me without giving me nightmares. The combination of fantasy and horror was spellbinding. The plot was absorbing. Bradbury's prose was mesmerizing. And the exchange between Will and his dad in chapter 28 immediately became one of my all time favorite literary scenes. I love a good versus evil story and that's just what this is. The tension between Will's contentment with childhood and Jim's desire to grow up tugged at my heart, and my favorite part of the whole story was the emotional arc that Will's dad undergoes. 

Something Wicked This Way Comes is the first book I've read by Ray Bradbury, but I also have Dandelion Wine and Fahrenheit 451 waiting on my shelves. Bradbury is one of the most celebrated 20th and 21st century American authors, but because he's known for being a sci-fi/horror/fantasy writer, I've never been particularly eager to read him even while keeping his books on my LIFE LIST for years. After finally reading Something Wicked This Way Comes however, I'm ready for more. 

I can't recommend this book enough, especially if, like me, you're always on the hunt for a spooky, atmospheric read that won't keep you awake at night. This is for sure a book I'll come back to but for the love of everything, only in October. This book was absolutely meant to be experienced in October and if you plan to read it, don't you dare pick it up in any other month!

What are some of your favorite spooky reads?

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Let's Bust a Recap : All the Light We Cannot See

I picked up All the Light We Cannot See a couple of years ago at Powell's in Portland, Oregon. It was a fun find because this hardcover edition was cheaper than all the paperback editions on the shelf. I brought it home and actually put it on my 2019 book list just a few months later, but I didn't get around to reading it last year. After so many people told me I should not put it off, it ended up on my book list again in 2020, and in August I finally read it. 

I know I'm late to the party, but wow. I was hooked from the beginning and told my dad he should read it after I was done as I happened to be visiting him in North Carolina at the time. He started to skim it and then had the nerve to try to hide it from me. After I actually finished it, he read it. Then my Gramma read it. Then my mom read it.

We all recommend it.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was published in 2014 and spent 130 consecutive weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. The New York Times then included it in its 10 Best Books of the Year, it was a National Book Award finalist, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015, and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. 

Set mainly in occupied France during WWII, the story spans from 1934 all the way to 2014. The book opens during the 1944 bombing of Saint-Malo on the Emerald Coast of Brittany. We are introduced to a blind French girl named Marie-Laure LeBlanc and a young German soldier named Werner Pfennig. Marie-Laure has fled Paris with her father to stay with her reclusive great-uncle in the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, while Werner has come through the ranks of the Hitler Youth with a special talent for building and fixing radios. Throughout the novel, Doerr flashes back and forth between the past leading up to the bombing, and the bombing itself until the past finally catches up with the main storyline. And let me tell you, the man knows how to leave you on a cliffhanger then flash you back eight years in time which has you racing through the book, trying to get back to what's going on directly after the bombing. The last two sections of the book give us a glimpse into the future with a bit from 1974 and then finally 2014. 

J.R. Moehringer said, "Doerr sees the world as a scientist, but feels it as a poet." In All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr would describe in detail the inner workings of a radio or an intricate lock system, but then in the next sentence, pen a unique turn of phrase or make a keen observation of human nature that would leave my heart aching. He juxtaposed the cruel, brutality of war with the absolute breathtaking beauty of nature in a jarring yet somehow seamless way, and I was captivated with his writing. While I have a couple of friends who told me they didn't make it very far into this one, I was enthralled from the first page and had a hard time putting this book down. I definitely get the hype surrounding it, and I'm glad I read it. While the writing is unsentimental, and the content heartbreaking, Doerr manages to bring us an ultimately uplifting and compelling story, and I was here for it.

With all that being said and as much as I highly recommend this novel, I have to point out it's just that: a novel. WWII was a real and horrendous time in history, and as much as I enjoy a good story, I try to balance my reading of that time period with nonfiction accounts of real people and their stories. If you haven't read The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom or Night by Elie Wiesel or Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, please don't miss out on them because you think they might be dry or too hard to read. The market seems to be pretty saturated with WWII fiction (and believe me, I own my fair share of it), but the real life accounts are so important for us to read and remember. I'm currently reading The Diary of Anne Frank and plan to share about it here soon. 

Have you read All the Light We Cannot See or some other novel set during WWII that you thought was outstanding? Do you like reading historical fiction or do you try to stick to facts? I have a whole shelf full of books centering around that particular time in our history and it's still amazing to me how it affected every corner of our world. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Let's Bust a Recap : Andrew Jackson

Well, Andrew Jackson is my new favorite president. I haven't really been ranking my favorites publicly on the blog since beginning this project, but let me give you a little update. 

Before officially beginning this project of reading through the American presidents in chronological order, I would have claimed Eisenhower as my favorite. Once beginning my literary quest, I decided I would try to put aside my preconceived ideas of the presidents I knew about and approach this goal with fresh eyes. Before getting to this biography of Jackson, my ranking was George Washington as my favorite with John Adams and James Madison tying for the 2nd and 3rd place spots. (We're going to keep my ranking to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd because after that it just gets tedious.) After this biography of Jackson by H.W. Brands, Jackson is now our gold medalist, with George Washington hanging on to silver, and Adams and Madison duking it out for bronze. In future, I'll let you know if anyone gets knocked off the stand. Because I'm sure this is what you all care about and why you come here to read my recaps, right? 

Going into this biography, I was a bit apprehensive as the last biography I read by Brands took me over two years to finish. And considering that the biography I read on John Quincy Adams earlier this year took me over five months to complete from start to finish, I ended up putting this one off for a bit. But once I started this one, I flew through it in three weeks and probably would have read it in even less time if I hadn't gotten sick right in the middle of reading it. 

Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times was published at the end of 2005 and was written by Henry William Brands, Jr. who has authored 30 books on U.S. history and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize twice. This biography on Jackson was engaging, fluent, and highly readable, and I truly enjoyed it from beginning to end. 

This was due largely in part to the fact that Andrew Jackson is far and away the most colorful and entertaining president I've read about yet. Born in the colonial Carolinas to his recently widowed mother, Jackson's entire life can be summed up in one word: struggle. As a boy during the Revolutionary War, he took a saber to the head after refusing to clean the boots of a commanding British officer. His mother died when he was only 14 leaving him an orphan, and after he ended up on the wild frontier of Tennessee, he apprenticed himself to a lawyer and managed to pass the bar with no real formal education or training. He dabbled in teaching, law, politics, speculation, and numerous other business ventures until he finally realized his true calling as a military leader. Leading the Tennessee militia and eventually becoming the U.S. commanding general of the southwest, he led raids against hostile Indian settlements, autonomously went into Spanish-ruled Florida to protect U.S. borders, and was the hero of New Orleans in the War of 1812. His soldiers viewed him as a father figure and affectionately called him "Old Hickory" and the Indians respected his military prowess and dubbed him "Sharp Knife". It was particularly fun to read about his military exploits as men such as Davy Crockett and Sam Houston served under him. 

When it came to his political career, he couldn't stand his time as a congressman or senator and didn't complete his terms. After having to make decisive life and death decisions in war and being respected as a military commander, it drove him crazy to sit in Washington listening to a topic debated for weeks on end with no real resolution. But he loved his country and when he felt that duty demanded something of him, he rose to the occasion. In the election of 1824 against John Quincy Adams, his widespread popularity made him a desirable candidate for those in Washington who didn't want an Adams presidency and he nearly won the election despite being a latecomer and not initially having thought about being president. By the end of that election however, he was determined to be president and four years later, he rode that wave of popularity easily into the White House. He truly was the first man of the people to be elected and his presidency gave rise to the Democratic Party. 

Some of the big issues Jackson dealt with during his two-term presidency included reform, nullification, the veto of the national bank, Indian removal policy, and the annexation of Texas. While Jackson certainly wasn't perfect and sometimes operated from a mistaken perception, he was never less than sincere and didn't let personal criticism sway him from doing what he believed to be right. Another big shift in reading about our nation's seventh president was that the issues of his presidency were largely domestic after so many years of struggling to create the United States and facing so much international conflict as a result of that. 

In his personal life, Jackson met and married Rachel Donelson Robards in Tennessee under dubious circumstances. Rachel was already married to someone else who was abusive and subject to jealous fits of rage. While Rachel and her first husband were separated and because a divorce was very hard to come by in those days, she and Jackson were living together as husband and wife before it was technically legal for them to do so. This was not uncommon on the frontier, and Jackson and Rachel were eventually married legally but the questionable beginnings of their relationship came back to haunt Jackson during the 1828 election when opponents dragged Rachel through the mud on a national scale causing her so much duress that she died before Jackson's inauguration. Jackson was fiercely devoted to Rachel their entire marriage and nearly didn't go to the White House after her demise. 

Andrew and Rachel for whatever reason didn't have any biological children, and they ended up adopting their nephew and two small Indian boys left orphaned during the many conflicts on the frontier. Even though Andrew was a stern and exacting military commander, he was tender with children and women and wouldn't hear a lady disgraced in his presence. 

I mean, really, I could go on and on. As I mentioned earlier, of course Andrew Jackson wasn't perfect and I don't agree with everything he ever did, but I identified with him more strongly than any other president I've read about so far and when I got to the point of his death in the book, I actually got a little choked up. However much this has to do with the fact that my dad is a native Tennessean and has taken us to the Hermitage, I still appreciated Jackson's politics, and he was the kind of man I can respect and admire. It's very easy to look back at our founders and other early politicians and do a bit of Monday morning quarterbacking from our current place in history, but when you look at the big picture, Jackson was the first president who was the true champion of the people and advocated government by the people—not just the wealthy, landed class but all the people. 

I have to commend Brands one more time on this biography. It was cogent, comprehensive without being exhausting, and the way he contextualized the events of Jackson's life in the bigger picture of what was going on nationally and globally was excellent. A true pleasure to read especially compared to his dense biography of Theodore Roosevelt. Any desire or project of reading through the presidents aside, this is a biography I would recommend on its own merit. It was entertaining and a thorough glimpse of history during the lifetime of Andrew Jackson.

I have another book on Jackson I plan to read this year, but next year it's on to Martin Van Buren and Old Tippecanoe! Have you read any particularly stellar biographies on any of the U.S. presidents? Do you have a favorite president or period of history that you love to read about?

Friday, November 13, 2020

Let's Bust a Recap : Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World

Alright, I'm just going to say it: I loved this book. This book is easily in my top five favorite books for 2020 and certainly my favorite nonfiction book for the year. 

Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World by Joanna Weaver was originally published in the summer of 2000 and is an invitation for every woman who's ever felt she isn't godly enough, isn't loving enough, isn't doing enough to slow down and find intimacy with God in the busyness of life. 

And in September of 2020, this book was a balm for my weary soul. 

Using the familiar story of busy Martha and adoring Mary, Joanna Weaver jumps off into deep Scriptural truths about God's love and care, our call to serve, the cure for our anxiety, and balancing worship with work. Spinning old stories with personal experiences, Scripture with quotes from great authors, Weaver brings every detail together in a quiet, lyrical summons to experience the mystery of sanctification with grace and wonder. Her writing reminded me very much of Robin Jones Gunn so you can imagine my delight when I realized that Robin and Joanna are friends and Joanna even shares a practical tip from Robin in this book about how to create space for personal worship in your daily routine. 

The thing I probably appreciated most about this book was the sweet balance Weaver emphasizes throughout. It seems in some contemporary Christian lit I've read, authors have a tendency to swing to one of two extremes: either there is a disturbing disregard for service in the guise of "taking care of ourselves" or there is a call to extreme service leaving the reader feeling an overwhelming obligation to participate in a frantic frenzy of activities to advance the Kingdom. In Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World, Weaver focuses on obeying Christ with our whole beings, coming to fill up at His table which should propel us outward in Christlike service of others. She reminds us of the truth that sanctification is a work of God that requires faithful obedience from us. It's something we can't accomplish in our own power, but we are called to work it out. It's a beautiful mystery. And instead of feeling inadequate to understand it or deflated at the constant one-step-forward-two-steps-back of my life, after reading this book I was reminded of God's irresistible grace and kindness and my small but sure place in His grand story. I mean, really, I could just cry thinking about it.

This is without question a book I will read again. And again and again. I'm so grateful that after years sitting unread on my shelf, it came to me in the midst of the madness of 2020. God is good. 

What book has encouraged you this year? 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Let's Bust a Recap : Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine shot onto the scene in 2017 scooping up awards left and right and popping up on a whole passel of must-read lists. Normally, a book this new wouldn't even be a blip on my radar, but after joining the #bookstagram at the end of 2018 and being a general fan of skimming over must-read lists, this one kept crossing my path. When people were still raving about it at the beginning of this year, I happened upon a copy at my favorite spot (you know the place) and promptly purchased it. But instead of bringing it home to languish on my shelves for an indeterminate amount of time as is my usual MO when I bring home a new stack of contemporary fiction, I ended up reading it right away. And I'm glad. Because it was great.

Debut novel of Scottish writer Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine was actually published after Honeyman submitted the first three chapters to a competition for unpublished fiction by female writers. In it, we meet 29 year old social misfit Eleanor who always says exactly what she thinks and spends her weekends alone eating frozen pizza and downing a couple bottles of vodka. After attending a local concert, she decides that she's meant to be with the lead singer of the band and begins a process of self-transformation. As Honeyman weaves together this story around themes of isolation, loneliness, friendship, and kindness, we wonder about Eleanor's mysterious past and how she has come to be where she is. 

NPR.org describes Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine as "deadpan, heartbreaking, and humorous all at once" and that description is dead on the money. I fell in love with Eleanor pretty quickly and was heartbroken over how she seemed to miss the mark on connecting with people even while chuckling at her total bluntness. I was a fan of any person who reached past her awkwardness to show her kindness. And I was rooting for Eleanor to be more than just fine, for her to make the human connection and thrive. When we finally learn the truth about Eleanor's life in a twist I did not see coming, I even more earnestly wanted her to discover the good things in life and come out stronger. 

Altogether an excellent novel, well-written and engaging throughout. I highly recommend it. Fair warning: there is a bit of rude language scattered throughout, if that's something that puts you off, but I personally thought it fit the circumstances and characters and was hardly gratuitous or shocking. I'm really impressed that this was Honeyman's debut novel in a field it seems she never planned on entering. She managed to write a very heavy story with a measure of quirky wit and lightness that made it a pleasure to read even as you cringed at the trauma of it. Well done. 

Several people compared Honeyman's Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine to Fredrik Backman's A Man Called Ove which was on my 2019 book list, but which I still haven't read. So now I'm even more anxious to get to that one sooner rather than later. (Although as I mentioned on Monday, I have a few more books I want to prioritize this year so I probably won't get to Ove until next year.) Have you read either of these books and did you connect to Eleanor or Ove? Do you keep up with all the hot new releases or do you wait to see if a book is going to stick around like I do?

Monday, November 9, 2020

Let's Bust a Recap : Being Known

Well, it's November 9th and even though 2020 has felt like it would never end in some ways, in other ways it has flown by just like any other year. Blogging has gone a little bit better this year than it did in 2019, but as it stands I have nine finished books waiting to be recapped, three books I'm currently reading, at least five other books I'd like to read by the end of 2020, and only about eight weeks left until New Years Eve. If you do the math on that it equals impossible, but let's give it the old college try, shall we?

Starting with this sweet new release that I read back in April. Yes, we're still catching up on books from the first half of the year. If memory serves, Being Known by Robin Jones Gunn was released April 28th, and, as I usually do with a new book by Mrs. Gunn, I promptly snatched it out of my mailbox as soon as our mail lady dropped it off and sat down to read it. Being Known is the second book in Gunn's new Haven Makers Series, and this novel focuses on Jennalyn's life. In the first book entitled Becoming Us (which was released last May) we meet a group of women who determine to prioritize their friendships with one another and end up becoming (get it?) a close-knit group of kindred spirits who help and encourage each other through the different joys and trials they encounter. If you're familiar with Robin Jones Gunn's work (which I am...intimately), two of the characters are already old friends: Christy and Sierra. Becoming Us focused in on Emily's life who had just recently moved to the Southern California area. In that book, Jennalyn was the instigator of the small group and in this book, we travel with her as she continues to process the grief of her mother's death.

Even though Jennalyn's mother has been gone for six years at the start of Being Known, the grief hits her in a new and overwhelming way as she settles in to life as a mother of two with a husband who is working a lot. In her vulnerability, she finds herself opening up to an old boyfriend that she bumps into who also has lots of fond memories of her mom.

Not only was this novel about intentional friendship so timely during the height of lockdowns and social distancing, it navigated the murky waters of social media relationships in such a real and grace-full way. I found myself sympathizing with Jennalyn and her struggle to discern wise boundaries, and rooting for her to open herself up to her friends' caring counsel and confide in the best people to help her through her grief. I so appreciate Robin Jones Gunn's ability to write these stories that address the issues we face today as friends—whether married, single, mothers, or without children—seeking to honor God in all our relationships. 

I'm also thankful for my real life DOEs who send me "Oh My, Cherry Pie" nail polish in the mail and come over for a middle-school style slumber party bash when our grown-up plans for a Girls' Weekend Away (that we'd been planning for a year) got cancelled due to corona. God blessed in the midst of the turmoil this year with not just an encouraging new book by my favorite author, but with true friends who have fleshed out the sweet relationships pictured in those books I love. 
~April 2020~
Looking forward to the next book in the Haven Makers Series. None have been announced as of yet, but I'm hoping we'll get a book from Tess's point of view soon!

What have you found to be thankful for during the year of corona?

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Pumpkin Carving 2020

It's the end of another month, we're getting tantalizingly close to the end of this insane year, and I have nine books sitting in a stack in my book nook waiting to be blogged about. (One from April still!) But it's Halloween and that means forget the books: it's time for our annual pumpkin carving post!

This year's venture turned into a family affair and we had a beautifully sunny Florida day to carve our pumpkins. 
~ready to go~
~three nieces joining in~
~scooping out the guts : always the most fun part~
~carving in progress~
This year, Cody thought doing a "Welcome" pumpkin would be particularly appropriate so that any trick-or-treaters would know to stop by our house, and I opted for some ghosts steaming up from a witch's cauldron. I loved how both our pumpkins turned out.
Our cutie nieces went for classic faces and with a little help from mom and dad pulled off some funny, friendly pumpkins. 
We had all the fun.

Happy Halloween!

October 31, 2020