Friday, January 18, 2019

Book Review: Out of the Silent Planet

I'm generally a big fan of C.S. Lewis and his writing. I should be. I spent four years of my life helping to transcribe his personal letters at the Marion E. Wade Center on Wheaton College's campus. I have always felt he gets the heart of matters so well and eloquently turns a phrase to bring insight into difficult subjects of religious belief and philosophical understanding. Nonetheless, I'm not a big fan of space travel literature. Despite his skilled pen, I didn't fully appreciate this short novel, Out of the Silent Planet, the first in a trilogy. I know Lewis meant it to be an allegorical tale, but it didn't stir me in the same way his other works moved me.

Dr. Elwin Ransom is on a walking tour when he stumbles onto the house of a former schoolmate and a famous physicist. The two men abduct Ransom and take him on a spaceship to the planet Malacandra. Upon their arrival, Ransom is about to be sacrificed to an alien life form called the "sorns" when he flees and encounters other species of life on the planet. He is eventually drawn to the highest life form on the planet and must plead his cause hoping to escape back to earth.

The inside cover of the Scribner Classics edition I read touted, "In the many layers of its allegory, and the sophistication and piercing brilliance of its insights into the human condition, it occupies a place among the English language's most extraordinary works for any age, and for all time." It also says, "the Space Trilogy is rivaled in this century only by Tolkien's trilogy The Lord of the Rings." Hmm. Wishing I loved it as much as that.

The book held my attention and was accessible but didn't seem to get anywhere, apart from drawing conclusions about the opposition of good versus evil and the problem of sin (or "bent" individuals). Perhaps I was simply not in a good frame of mind to dig deeper, but the story left me as cold as the space Dr. Ransom encountered. I read the book to take part in The Deliberate Reader's on-line book club, so I will be interested to read the reactions of fellow readers in that group. Hopefully, they extracted much more from it than I did and will lead me to see the value of the book. Several Amazon reviewers indicated that the third book is the best by far, but do I have it in me to continue with the series long enough to get to book three? We shall see.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Book Review: The Stranger in the Woods

Fascinating! Unique! Thought-provoking! This non-fiction book swept me into its tale and into the life and mindset of a wholly alien personality. While I hope and dream of more opportunities to fill my emotional tank and meet my inner needs for socialization, Michael Finkel shares the story of an individual who went to great extremes to avoid social interaction, meeting his intensely foreign need to be alone. I continue to think about the issues and ideas arising from this biography, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.

The back cover copy reads: "In 1986, a shy and intelligent twenty-year-old named Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the forest. He would not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later, when he was arrested for stealing food. Living in a tent even through brutal winters, he survived by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to store edibles and water, and to avoid freezing to death. He broke into nearby cottages for food, clothing, reading material, and other provisions, taking only what he needed but terrifying a community never able to solve the mysterious burglaries.

"Based on extensive interviews with Knight himself, this is a vividly detailed account of his secluded life - why did he leave? what did he learn? - as well as the challenges he has faced since returning to the world. It is a gripping story of survival that asks fundamental questions about solitude, community, and what makes a good life, as well as a deeply moving portrait of a man who was determined to live his own way, and succeeded."

I was thoroughly intrigued by this modern-day hermit. Even walking a few days (literally walking, while listening) in Knight's shoes left me confounded by his choices. I recall a silence test I had to take once for passage into a particular group (Black Arrow, for any Salvation Army readers). Going 24 hours without speaking to another individual made me more than uncomfortable - it was almost an impossibility for me. Of course, I was at camp, among people, attempting to hold my tongue. I cannot fathom what it would be like to isolate to the point of no contact with another human being for decades.

Finkel addresses all the appropriate questions: Was Knight autistic? psychologically disturbed? did his conscience prick at the crimes he committed for survival? It is clear, he would have continued to subsist in that manner if not caught and arrested. Even now, he continues to struggle with his reintegration into society. Was his lifestyle better than our constant rat race in pursuit of wealth, information, security, and purpose? Uncomfortable with eye contact and the myriad of nuances in conversation, Knight much preferred communing with nature instead of people. As I concluded the book, I almost wished I could assist to give this man back the most basic things he required - isolation and privacy. The author contemplated offering to purchase a stretch of land for Knight, but didn't pursue it in the end. After all, what Knight really wants most of all is simply to be left ... alone.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Book Review: Last Christmas in Paris

This fun book had so much appeal: Christmas, Paris, an epistolary novel. The cover alone would have compelled me to bite. I enjoyed Last Christmas in Paris immensely. It intrigued me to learn that it was co-written by two women who met and became friends through the suggestion of their mutual agent. I would love to be introduced to a kindred spirit, find a fast and easy friendship, and collaborate on an epistolary novel (you write the letters from your character and I'll write the letters from mine and it will have a natural flow of realistic progression). Heck, I'd even just like to find a kindred spirit with whom to correspond. Or, even better, to have an agent in the first place, ha!

The tag line for this book is perfect: "When war pulled them apart, their words brought them together." An elderly Thomas Harding returns to Paris with a handful of wartime letters. The story that unfolds through the letters not only gives a glimpse into life during WWI but also provides a love story to letters, an expose' on the power of words in wartime, and a stirring connection between young friends.

This was a quick and easy read at the tail end of a holiday. Since I love the epistolary style, I knew I'd appreciate this book. The characters were warm and endearing. The plot unfolded at a leisurely pace. My only regret was that the final letter (the one Thomas is returning to Paris to open) wasn't quite a stunning as the build-up promised. Still, I loved the process of getting from the first letter to the final one. I recommend this book to anyone who loves novels in a letter-style, anyone who loves Paris at Christmas-time, and anyone searching for an engaging historical holiday book.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Book Review: Every Breath

I always worry when approaching a romance novel. Will it be a clean read or full of sex scenes? Will the author portray love as something feeling-oriented, intensely powerful, and often transitory or portray it as an action more than a feeling, reflecting commitment more than passion? Nonetheless, I eagerly anticipated this new romance novel by Nicholas Sparks - if anyone can ignite a spark of love in a story, it would be him. While Every Breath won't make any top ten list (if I can garner more than six best books this year), it was still a somewhat satisfying audio experience.

The story lured me in and kept me committed, but I found my head arguing with my heart about whether the story was laudable. The difficulty is that Sparks initially portrays it as a true story fictionalized (he both introduces and concludes the novel with author input). While I'm sure similar experiences play out these days, I've never fallen for someone in the space of a few hours or days, jumped into bed, and discovered a love so intense it can withstand years of separation.

When the main character contemplates marriage (to the man she had been with for six years, instead of the man she fell for in one day) the author writes, "She had no desire to smile through the faux romance of a fairy tale wedding. By then, after all, she understood the nature of romance, and knew it had little to do with trying to create a fantasy. Real romance was spontaneous, unpredictable, and could be as simple as listening to a man read a love letter found in a lonely mailbox on a stormy September afternoon." I don't buy it. Real love, for me anyway, is not spontaneous, unpredictable, and simple; it is, instead, covenant-oriented, stable, and often quite difficult to live out well. And then I think, "I'm over thinking this whole thing - the author simply meant it to be a stirring love story - why can't I enjoy going along for the ride?"

So, if you're up for an intense ride of passionate love at first sight, and you have no problem with knee-jerk sexuality, you might be swept away by this love story. Hope Anderson wonders whether her surgeon boyfriend of six years will ever be ready to commit, settle down, and provide her with much-longed-for children. Then, on a solitary stay at her parent's Sunset Beach cottage, she meets Tru Walls, a beautiful man from Zimbabwe and, in short order, falls in love. Their time together is intensely romantic (and the intimacy expressed in great detail). But at the end of the week, Hope attends her girlfriend's wedding, her boyfriend makes a surprise appearance, and Hope must decide whether she will follow duty or passion (perhaps that was where I bristled, too).

The book wasn't a clean read, and it didn't align with my personal values, but it was well-written. I still think of Nicholas Sparks as an outstanding storyteller and I wouldn't shy away from his future books because this one didn't gel for me. Certain elements were incredibly enticing - the idea of the letter repository at Kindred Spirits, contemplating the life of a safari guide, the desire for children overpowering the desire for romance, etc. I would love a girlfriend trek (since my husband is travel-averse) to visit and deposit a letter in this real-life mysterious mailbox on Bird Island or to cross oceans for a safari experience. I could even see someone making a movie from this novel. It would, no doubt, be a beautiful cinematic experience (especially given the idyllic locations on the coast of North Carolina and the bush regions of Africa). Although it is not a book I would read again, it seems to garner sufficient praise from other readers.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Book Review: Little Big Love

Although Katy Regan has written four books published in the UK, Little Big Love is her US debut. I will look for more from this author. She deftly portrays the emotional struggle of weight issues for women and their children. Since I have a son whose BMI indicates he is heavily overweight, I could relate to Juliet Hutchinson's angst concerning her son's size and the ensuing bullying. Even when a parent longs for a healthier lifestyle and choices for an overweight child, it is often difficult to implement because food is more than simply what we put in our bodies. It comes with emotional associations and it often plays a role in relationship-building.

Zac Hutchinson is frustrated with his family. Everyone seems to conspire to keep him from the truth about his father and his father's whereabouts. Plus, he can sense the tensions surrounding the issue. When his mother admits to lingering feelings for his father, Zac is more determined than ever to play detective, along with his neighboring best friend Teagan, to find Liam and establish a relationship with him. In Juliet's bid to increase her son's happiness and self-esteem, they begin to tackle his weight issue and to talk more about the taboo subject of his father.

Despite being slow in parts, I eagerly awaited the final word on why Liam disappeared from their lives and whether he would step in and father his son now. The novel, told from three distinct voices (the grandfather, the mother, and the son), creates realistic characters facing an event from a decade ago still impacting their relationships in the present. Regan does a great job of stirring the reader to root for the little guy (or would that be the big guy). Little or big, love comes in different forms and sizes and has the potential to create both moments of simple joy and moments of substantial grief.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Resolution Review and Recalibration

Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

My 2018 resolutions were a bust - I cannot spin it differently (much though I might wish). Since I set both conservative and optimistic goals, I expected to at least reach the moderate goals. Alas, I barely scratched the surface of my intentions. I only excelled at things I do naturally with ease, reading and writing. I wrote every single day of 2018 and read half a dozen books on writing.

My first goal was to attend a writing conference, and while I fulfilled that goal, it left me more distraught than encouraged. I netted three manuscript requests, but ignored one because criticism received at the conference convinced me that the manuscript required further revision. The other requests (for my Probability Code manuscript) led to nothing; although in one case, the editor who requested it then reviewed it as if submitted for her romance imprint instead of her YA imprint.

Every goal aimed at reaching the elusive end of publication. Yet, I didn't really pursue it rigorously. Like many would-be writers, I enjoy talking and reading about writing far more than I enjoy putting my words out there for critique. Emotionally, I allow minor setbacks to block my efforts. Despite reading a book on writing resilience, I did not stay determined.

My biggest failure? I intended to send out ten queries, and I didn't send one. Not one. My gears are always spinning with the idea that the work requires more tweaking, deeper revision. Thus, I am revising three or four manuscripts but never querying. I didn't even glance at the one manuscript I intended to revise (my travel memoir - no longer on my radar).

The biggest accomplishment? I broke out of my self-imposed mold of novel writing, daring to attempt something new. In penning a short story called "Stolen for Good," I attempted and succeeded in writing a surprise ending. I even submitted it to a contest. While it didn't win (it was a highly competitive competition - Glimmer Train), I learned much.

Still, I believe in nothing wasted. Even when tempted to consider myself a hamster on a wheel, I am practicing the trade and putting my butt in the chair, regardless of outcomes. If anything, I think I should take my eyes off the outcomes and simply focus on enjoying the ride. When I allow discouragement over lack of publication to cloud my vision, I lose energy and enjoyment in the writing. Viewing the success of others, I grow discouraged and wish to quit trying. As Theodore Roosevelt observed, "Comparison is the thief of joy." I spend too much time naval-gazing. To accept that I'm a work in progress, I need Jon Accuf's reminder, "Don't compare your beginning to someone else's middle."

For now, I am hard at work researching a fascinating topic. My focus has shifted from fiction to non-fiction, something I never envisioned. I will continue to pursue 2 daily pages of free-association writing and at least a half hour to an hour per day in other writing. I will seek more titles on the craft because I can always stand to improve. After a writing sabbatical and 5 weeks of tithing my talents, I'm ready to recalibrate my efforts, to focus more on the joy of writing than success or failure. I want 2019 to be a year free of assessment. Indeed, I'm more than ready for my creativity to blossom for creativity's sake alone. To hell with platform and publication. Instead of discouragement, I want to regain delight in my writing. To do that, I must stop seeking validation and value the work for myself alone.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Few Favorite Reads of 2018

I love the structure of my book club. We use our January meeting to select ten books for the year and our December meeting for fellowship and title reviews. We had a lovely visit this month and were even blessed with a musical offering from one member who has taken up the dulcimer. Sadly, the year wasn't one to write home about. Apart from two books that stood out as excellent reads (and indeed, made my blog favorites list), the other books were less-than-stellar. We ended up observing that 2016 was a far better year for book club selections (indeed, that year, I wrote this favorites post where I couldn't narrow them down to fewer than 16 excellent reads).

As  I perused my list from 2018, I could only come up with three young adult titles, two adult fiction titles, and one adult non-fiction title billed as highly-recommended. I'm hoping I make better use of my time and reading energies (flagging at the moment) in 2019. Here are the 2018 favorites I CAN highly recommend (for reviews, simply click on the title):

Young Adult:

Trouble by Gary D. Schmidt

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

Adult Fiction:

Adult Non-fiction:

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

In looking back over my list of titles, I would give honorable mentions to two middle grade novels:

Faith, Hope, and Ivy June by Phyllis Reynolds Nayor
Penny from Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm

one adult fiction title:

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

and three adult non-fiction titles:

The Genius Factory by David Plotz
I Can Only Imagine by Bart Millard with Robert Noland

What were your favorite books read in 2018?

May your 2019 be a stellar reading year! If you add any of these books, it will certainly boost it along.