Category Archives: books

Book Review: The Life We Bury

So, maybe I wanted to read this book all in one sitting.

51a4kko7qzl-_sx330_bo1204203200_.jpgWhile I may have wanted to, I don’t have that kind of free time. I had added Allen Eskens’ debut novel to my book list at the beginning of the year, but truth be told, I kept putting off reading it. I was convinced that it would be depressing and scared that it would be a disappointing read.

I’m a huge fan of mysteries and thrillers, but have grown a little tired of the genre. Crime procedurals hold little appeal for me these days, and many mysteries are full of violence, language and crimes that are presented luridly. I was afraid The Life We Bury would fall into these traps.

I was wrong on all accounts.

The Life We Bury is the story of Joe Talbert, a college freshmen from a tough family situation who has worked to pay his own way to college. In his first semester, he tackles an assignment to write a biography of someone. After procrastinating for awhile, Joe finally settles on Carl Iverson, a convicted rapist and murderer now released to a nearby nursing home where he is dying of cancer.

As Joe begins to work on the assignment, his discussions with Carl and his friends begins to reveal someone different from the cold killer Joe had imagined. A Vietnam veteran honored for his heroism, the Carl Joe comes to know doesn’t seem to match up with the villain Carl had been described as during his trial. Joe, with the help of his new girlfriend, begins to unravel the mystery and uncover the truth, resulting in an exciting few chapters toward the end of the book—which I won’t spoil here.

But The Life We Bury isn’t just a whodunit. Instead, it’s just a good story with well-rounded characters with back stories and deep emotions and intricate personalities. In a word, the characters are just real. These are not cardboard characters who are only devices to move the plot along, but complex creatures with their own flaws and foibles. Joe’s relationship with his autistic brother, woven through with deep love and devotion, guilt and frustration, is particularly striking. As the aunt of an autistic child, I often found myself drawn into their interactions.

I’d recommend the book to anyone looking for a good mystery that isn’t full of foul language, sex scenes and lurid crimes. There are some undoubtedly tough topics in the book, but they aren’t the centerpiece, nor are they dwelled upon. All details are used to add to and move the story forward.

While I do think that at times, Eskens was a little enamored with his own prose, resulting in descriptive paragraphs with a touch too much description, that’s really one of the only negatives I can point to. Eskens is incredibly talented at dialogue, which generally felt very genuine and realistic.

All in all, The Life We Bury was a great read to start off the summer. I hope the rest of the books on my list will be as good!


On Writing

5563c0f816ca69e039d426cdI’ve always loved stories. Books line one entire wall of my parents basement, double-shelved in some places. The built-shelving in my old bedroom at their house still holds a collection of books that range from Sweet Valley High to a Little House on the Prairie. I even belonged to a book club for preteen girls for awhile, getting a selection of books every month, ranging from a melodramatic teen tear-jerker about a girl who had meningitis and lost her hearing and a gem like The Face on the Milk Carton.

The written word has always been important to me, but when I talk with today’s teens about writing and books, most just wrinkle their noses and tell me writing is boring and that they don’t like to read.

I’ve always thought that good writers were first voracious readers.

And we’re raising up fewer and fewer readers—and even fewer writers. So, my question is: Who will be the great writers of tomorrow?

We live in a society that says everyone can write. Google the word fanfiction or check out the number of  self-published ebooks on Amazon if you don’t believe me. And while it’s true that anyone can write, we’ve lost focus of the craft of writing. Gone are the days of a well-crafted, beautifully constructed prose that leads us into the story and introduces us to characters we’ll never forget. We’ll accept hastily written stories, rife with plot holes, bad grammar, and stilted conversations and call it good literature—even when it’s not.

So what does this mean for the future of literature? I don’t know. But I hope that somewhere out there—whether its a self-published ebook or a big publishing house best seller—that someone is writing the defining piece of literature of the early 2000s, the “classic” that will be on the must-read list of our grandchildren’s children.

I hope that young writers continue to write, even when their friends think it’s uncool because they know they have a story to tell.

Because no matter the format, the written word and the innate human love of story will never fade—and we shouldn’t have to accept sub-par storylines and flat characters.

So, prove me wrong, writers. Go out and write the next great classic.

Read on!

What have I been doing over the weekend, other than changing up the layout of this site?

Well, as promised, I’ve been compiling my 2013 reading list. After taking some suggestions (I didn’t get many) into consideration and reading some best of 2012 book lists (NPR, Goodreads, among others) and mulling over the books I said I’d read and didn’t quite get to, I’ve compiled a list of 35 books to read this year. It’s a lofty goal, since I’m fairly sure I didn’t break 20 in 2012, but we’ll see!

With no further ado, the list:

947375_315364461. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner (non-fiction)
2. On Writing by Stephen King (non-fiction)
3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (fiction)
4. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (non-fiction)
5. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (fiction)
6. Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox (non-fiction)
7. Radioactive: Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss (non-fiction)
8. A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano (fiction)
9. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (fiction)
10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (fiction)
11. The Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich by Mark Kriegel (non-fiction)
12. Vanishing and Other Stories by Deborah Willis (fiction)
13. House Rules by Jodi Picoult (fiction)
14. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (fiction)
15. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (fiction)
16. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (non-fiction)
17. Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen (fiction)
18. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (fiction)
19. The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark (non-fiction)
20. The Charlatan’s Boy by Jonathan Riggs
21. The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
22. The Brontes: Wild Genius On The Moors: The Story Of A Literary Family by Juliet Barker
23. America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation by David Goldfield
24. The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates
25. The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
26. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larsen
27. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
28. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by The Countess of Carnarvon
29. The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
30. Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley
31. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
32. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
33. Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
34. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
35. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

A new year, a fresh start

947375_31536446It’s January 29, and I haven’t even compiled my book list for 2013. That just tells you a little of how this year has gone so far.

Actually, most of the time, I’ve felt like I’ve been in a whirlwind, making decisions about big stuff at work, when to have dental surgery, and everything else in the world.

And, truth be told, my great plan to read 30 books in 2012 fell really, really flat. . . .I’m fairly sure I was barely into double digits before I just quit.

So, dear ones, it’s another year and another chance. Over the next week, I’ll be compiling my list of books to read in 2013. While I tend to lean heavily toward fiction, I do like to throw in a little non-fiction or biography here or there. I like to include classics and newer fiction. And I always put a little Jane Austen on the list.

But before I jump in and consult all my sources (best book lists, NPR lists, the books on my list from last year that I didn’t read), I want to ask you to chime in. In the comments, sound off on books you think I would enjoy or should read—and include author, title, and reasons why you think I would like it or should read it. This time next week, I’ll unveil the list!

Ready! Set! Go!

Book Review: The Paris Wife

Ernest Hemingway is haunting me.

Recently, I rewatched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Guess who’s woven throughout the story? Hemingway. Then, I read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It may be about Hadley Hemingway, Papa’s first wife, but Hemingway is definitely one of the primary characters. Then, I went to see The Words last weekend. And throughout the movie there are nods to Hemingway: Bradley Cooper’s character visiting Hem’s haunts in Paris, another character reading The Sun Also Rises and being inspired, the plot line of someone losing all of their written work on a train. All Hemingway nods.


And let’s just say it this way: Papa and I don’t have a friendly relationship. I have always wanted to like Hemingway. It just seemed like the writerly thing to do. Plus, he’d been a journalist, spent time in Missouri, married two women from St. Louis, and even spent time in Piggott, Arkansas, at second wife Paulie Pfeiffer’s family home—a home I visited once when I was working on a day trip travel series for the newspaper in Sikeston, Missouri.

But all my attempts to love Hemingway’s writing have fallen flat. I’ve started and never finished For Whom the Bell Tolls more times than you can count. When I read Hemingway, I get annoyed by his sentence style rather than awed. This from a woman whose senior review of her work included a comment from a magazine professional that one of her stories reminded her of Hemingway, in the way I described the hot, dusty roads. I’ve always liked that comment—but I’ve never been a big Hemingway fan.

But a couple of years ago, I read a fiction piece about Hemingway. It was interesting and stirred my interest in him again. (I made another stab at For Whom the Bell Tolls and failed.) I saw Midnight in Paris and laughed at the caricature of Hemingway. And somewhere along the way, I kept seeing The Paris Wife by Paula McLain appear on best-seller lists or lists of books you should read. So, I did. And while it made me hate Hemingway for his selfishness and cry for the deep sense of loss and yearning nothing ever really filled for him, it was also an extremely good book.

In The Paris Wife, McLain tells the story of Hadley Richardson who became Hadley Hemingway, Papa’s first wife—before anyone even called him that. She was the wife who believed he had greatness before he’d proven it; the one who went with him to Paris so he could exercise his talent among the ex-patriates already there (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein); and who stood beside him when he broke ties with nearly all of them. She supported him in his work and also with her trust fund. She loved him, despite all of his flaws and his violent temper.

The book is fiction, but doesn’t play fast and loose with the facts. It’s fiction because it’s told in Hadley’s voice, with a few snippets when Ernest himself breaks in. Basically, it recounts their marriage, which lasted almost 5 years and produced one son, John Nicanor Hemingway, called Bumby by his parents and later in life, Jack. Hemingway basically ruined the marriage with his affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, who had been Hadley’s friend and became his second wife.

At the end of this novel, I cried. I was really mad at Hemingway and identified somehow with Hadley, the woman who assumed she didn’t really deserve him anyway. And in the end, she turned out to be the better, stronger person—at least in my opinion. Hemingway once wrote of Hadley, years later after the dissolution of their marriage and when he’d married 3 more times: “I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her.” The final book Hemingway wrote, A Moveable Feast, recounted his marriage to Hadley and his life in Paris in those early years. In many ways, it was his final tribute to her, a remarkable woman who had every right to say terrible things about him, but referred to him kindly, calling him a “prince” in later interviews. He called her the winter of 1961 to talk about their marriage and A Moveable Feast. Later that summer, he committed suicide.

So, if you want a well-written book that’s fiction but pretty true to the facts, read The Paris Wife. And then we can talk about how I’m still a little mad at Hem.

The year in which I accidentally read a billion books about. . . genocide

Remember when I wrote that post about how I picked up Sarah’s Key because I liked the cover, then read it and discovered it was all about the Holocaust?

Well, that kind of happened again. A few weeks ago, I went rogue from my list of books to read this year. I kept running in to books with subject matter and language I felt were unnecessary and marking them off the list. And in the middle of year at work that has been stressful, my reading has lost a little steam. So, one afternoon I was checking out the Kindle Store on Amazon (my Kindle app has proven quite helpful in giving books a test run so that I only buy copies of the ones I really love) and saw a book called The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. I downloaded it, thinking the description was interesting and the cover image was nice. Plus, I’d read Bohjalian’s earlier work Midwives years earlier and thought it was pretty good. And once again, Bohjalian, a man, was writing a novel from the viewpoint of a woman. It’s always interesting to me when men write in a woman’s voice and do it well, so I wanted to see if Bohjalian came off as authentic this time.

By Chris Bohjalian – The Sandcastle Girls: A Novel (6/17/12)

Then, I started reading the novel. Using two parallel timeframes, 1915 and the present, Bohjalian weaves a story about a young American woman, the Armenian genocide that time has generally forgotten, a love story, and a woman uncovering secrets about her grandparents in the present. And once again, just like with Sarah’s Key, I completely missed the fact that this book was about genocide.

Who reads two books in a matter of months that are about huge populations of people being exterminated and doesn’t realize it? Apparently, that person is me.

Ahem. Anyway. . . with such subject matter, the book has some undeniably hard-to-stomach and graphic scenes to read. Characters are motivated by sheer hate and revenge. Governments commit atrocities and others look on, doing nothing. And at the end, you don’t get to know everything that happened to all of the characters you’ve come to know and love. For me, Bohjalian wasn’t quite as successful at switching from past to present as he could have been. Sometimes, the shift happened within a matter of pages or paragraphs with nothing to signal the timeshift. I like to think of myself as a thoughtful, informed reader, but it was confusing sometimes.

I doubt I’ll ever read The Sandcastle Girls again. It’s good, but it’s not a lovely masterpiece that I want to stop in and visit all the time. It weaves a tale in a time in history that horrifies and frightens me, as I consider the depths of sinfulness and hatred that can rule a man’s heart.

But at the same time, I’m glad I read it. I’m glad I now know about the genocide of Armenians in the early 1900s, a fact my study of history had pretty much skipped over until now. So, I applaud Bohjalian on a well-written, well-researched, heart-wrenching book—but I probably won’t be adding a physical copy to my personal library.

I think we need a new plan.

Remember when I set out that lofty goal to read 30 books this year?

Remember when I almost achieved that goal last year?

Remember when I created this incredible list of books to read this year?

The silly Jane Austen book I couldn’t resist.

Yeah. That was pretty cool wasn’t it? The problem? It’s probably not going to happen.

It’s almost August and I’m woefully behind schedule if I’m going to read 30 books in 12 months. With about four months left to go, the number of books I’ve read is still in the single digits. I also should have done more research on some of the books I set out to read; I started several on the list only to realize they were particularly vile and to subsequently strike them from the list. And then, I got a little crazy in the Kindle store and bought a bunch of books that aren’t on the list. Then, there was the incredibly silly Jane Austen-inspired novel I found in Target and had to read, even though I knew it was going to be completely ridiculous. And it was, but it also made me laugh!

Truth be told, I’m probably not going to reach my goal this year. And I’m OK with that. I’ll just forge ahead, reading the books that interest me and savoring the good ones.

And maybe 2013 will be the year I actually read 30 books!

Trust Me.

I don’t really write that much poetry—at least not since eighth grade.

But this morning, after reading a prayer written by Scotty smith in his book, Everyday Prayers, one kind of poured out onto the page. So, I thought I’d share it. (The prayer by Scotty that inspired this will follow the poem.) I’m not saying this poem is good or life-changing, but it’s a way of expressing myself in prayer to God.

Trust Me

Trust Me, He whispers softly,
though I kick and scream, push and pull against His will.
I call for an easy way out,
But He bids the storm inside me to be still.

Could these circumstances be Your tools?
Are You at work and my heart is in the crucible?
I want to be obedient, I say
—but I also want my way.

Trust. Trust. Trust Me,
You quietly repeat in the face of my loud defiance.
I am at work, You insist. I know what I’m doing.
It may feel like a mess, like chaos swirling out of control,
but always remember: I don’t let go.
I won’t let go of you.

Behold I am doing a new thing. Trust Me.

Trust Me.

Scotty Smith’s prayer is below.  You can find it here:

Prayer About Hoping in God’s Unfailing Love

No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love. Psalm 33:16-18

Dear Jesus, though it is not fun, it is a good thing to come to the end of ourselves—to be in situations where all of our resources… all of our strength… all of wisdom are simply not enough.  Indeed, it is a gospel thing to feel the pain of whatever worked in the past, not working in the present moment… to feel the confusion of not knowing what to do next… to feel the helplessness of being out of contorl.

For only in those times do we fully abandon ourselves to the God who alone can part Red Seas… overthrown a whole Midianite army with 300 gun-less soldiers… take down Goliaths with a pebble… feed multitudes with a few fish and pieces of bread… raise a dead Man for the salvation of his people and the transformation of the cosmos.

Jesus, we come and abandon ourselves to you today, for you are that dead Man who now lives. You are the One who is redeeming his Bride and making all things new.  It is your unfailing love that we can and must hope in. There is no other supply sufficient to the need. There is no other strength sufficient for the task. There is no other balm sufficient for the pain. There is no other rest sufficient for the exhaustion. There is no hope sufficient for the crisis.

We bring our broken hearts to you. We bring our struggling marriages to you. We bring our divided churches to you. We bring our conflicted relationships to you. We bring our wayward children to you. We bring our unbelieving friends to you. We bring the needs of our community to you. We bring it all to you, Jesus. We will trust in you and your unfailing love. Astonish us by bringing much glory to yourself. So very Amen, we pray, in your merciful and mighty name.

Book Review: Persuasion

The Book:

by Jane Austen
The Kindle version and Penguin Classic hardback

The Review:

If you know me, you know that I fell in love with Jane Austen a long time ago. Pride and Prejudice has been one of my favorite novels since I first read it as a teen. (What can I say! I’m still a romantic!) But I came to Persuasion later in life, finally reading it as an adult after watching the BBC’s version of the book on NPT when I was about 27—which happens to be the age of Austen’s heroine in Persuasion, Anne Elliot. (It also helped that Captain Wentworth was played by Rupert Penry-Jones, who despite not being my type, was very cute!)

Maybe I loved this story because I connected too much with Anne, a 27-year-old unmarried woman who thinks her chance at love has passed her by. Maybe I loved it because somehow it seemed more real and mature than some of Austen’s other works. Perhaps I just loved it because I love a happy ending and like Anne and her Captain Wentworth, believe in the constancy of love.

Whatever the reason, Persuasion became my favorite Jane Austen novel and it remains so. As I hinted at earlier, I think this novel shows more maturity from Austen. She was older; her heroine was older.  Persuasion was Austen’s last completed novel, written shortly before her death, and probably in a hurry as her illness progressed. Maybe because she wrote it fairly quickly and without time for extensive revisions, it’s shorter than some of her other works. (And to all my friends who have set out to read P&P and failed, maybe this is the Austen novel to start with. Ease in!) It doesn’t feel unfinished or hurried, but it gets to the point, and somehow tells a more realistic love story than some of her other books.

There are a lot of writers out there who I make fun of because their books seem to follow a pattern (take Nicholas Sparks, for example). What makes their work and Austen’s different is that she’s such a good writer. Yes, you know her characters are likely to end up together. We probably wouldn’t like her as much if Elizabeth didn’t end up with Darcy and Anne didn’t get her Captain Wentworth. But somehow, in the midst of that, she taps into emotions and ways of thinking that we relate to. Women love Jane Austen because we’ve been self-controlled Elinor and followed our heart like Marianne (Sense and Sensibility). We’ve missed the good guy in front of our faces like Emma. We’ve misjudged people and sometimes made poor decisions out of a desire to feel special (Elizabeth and Lydia in P&P). And, if you’re old enough and been single long enough, you’ve felt like Anne Elliot, forgotten, overlooked, and ignored.

If you’re looking for a good love story to read this summer, throw away trashy romance novels and all those silly Christian romance novels. Pick up Persuasion and give it a chance. It may take awhile to get used to the Regency time period, manners, customs, and language. But when you finish, you won’t be sorry. And you’ll have a smile on your face.

Book Review: Sarah’s Key

The Book:

Sarah’s Key
by Tatiana de Rosnay
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008

The Review:

Truth be told, I picked this book up for two very simple, albeit uninformed reasons: I liked the cover and as I skimmed the cover copy and very briefly glanced at the description on the back, I liked the fact that it appeared to be fiction rooted in history with a mystery. And if there’s anything I like, it’s historical mysteries. Or mysteries in general.

So I bought the book and left it sitting in a pile for months. Then, I put it on my list to read this year and picked it up after finishing Jayber Crow because I wanted to read an paper and ink book (I’d read Jayber Crow on my iPad, but if anyone wants to buy me a nice bound copy of that book, I wouldn’t resist!). And Sarah’s Key surprised me.

Sarah’s Key is actually telling two stories—Sarah’s story from 1942 and Julia Jarmound’s from 2002—and how they intersect. Julia is an American journalist married to a French man and she’s lived and worked in Paris for more than a decade. Sarah is a young Jewish girl whose family is rounded up in the Vel di’Hiv Roundup in Paris, arrested, sent to work camps, and in Sarah’s parents’ case, sent to Auschwitz and the gas chambers. It won’t spoil the story for me to tell you that Sarah escapes. In the novel, Julia is assigned to write about the Vel’ d’Hiv anniversary and in doing so, becomes entranced by the story. She discovers her own family’s link to Sarah and cannot let the story go until she finds out what happened to Sarah. Using Sarah’s own point of view from 1942 and Julia’s investigative journalism, interviews, and inner thoughts, the story emerges. And it’s a story that will make you cry and think about humanity’s extreme capacity for great sin.

I thought the story was well written and paced well. I enjoyed the separate chapters told from the two narrators’ points of view and the fact that chapters were short and to the point for the most part. I’m still not sure how I felt about the part of the story involving Julia’s late-in-life pregnancy and her husband’s desire to abort the child, but that child makes for a very poignant ending. I will say that the final chapters felt kind of blah to me, like Julia was just going through the motions of her life, not really moving forward—which I’m going to give the writer the benefit of the doubt on and say was intentional and a way to show that Julia had unfinished business she needed to deal with before she could move on with life.

All in all, Sarah’s Key is a good read. It’s not a light, beach read, but it is well written, emotional, and intriguing. And it sparked a compassion and desire to know more about World War II era history in me, and that’s not something I’d ever thought would interest me.