Sarah’s Key

Sarah's Key As many of you know, WWII historical fiction is right up my alley. A majority of my “Want to Read” fiction on Goodreads consists of WWII fiction. I even have a book in my mind that I will write someday. So I went into this thinking it would be a layup.

It starts with two stories: the 1942 story of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup of Jews by the French police. It is the story of one ten-year-old girl and her family and their tragic separation. The second is a modern-day journalist studying the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup (nearing it’s 60th anniversary) and finding her own link to the history there. The chapters go back and forth between these two stories.

The 1942 story is wonderful. It draws you in and you picture what is happening in your mind; you put yourself there. You do it despite the writing. The 1942 story is told from the third person: The girl did this, the girl thought that, etc. It detaches the reader from the story, but despite this, you enter in.

The modern-day story of the journalist, however, is told in the first person. Yet I found myself struggling to relate to her. I didn’t understand her. I didn’t really even like her that much, though she gave me little to like or dislike. She, and her story, was bland. About half way through the book the 1942 story ends, and the rest of the book is the modern day story, which by now has intertwined with the story of the past. I remember getting to that first chapter that didn’t take me back to 1942, back to the little girl- my heart sank. That was the story the reader wants to hear.

In literature, there is story, and there is beautiful writing, and a handful of times, you find a gem that combines the two. This one absolutely leans toward story- there is nothing beautiful in the prose. It doesn’t read like music, it isn’t moving, it doesn’t create a scene you are entranced with. It is plain and tells a story. This is ok when the story is fantastic. This story could have been fantastic. But in the end, it wasn’t. Rosnay had a great beginning in her mind, one with amazing potential. But in the making of it, too much was lost. I wish she had stuck with the 1942 story and seen it through to the end. I wish she had made that the only story, the first-person account. It could have been….so much more.

(If you, like me, love WWII fiction, I recommend instead reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.)

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The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore This book took the majority of my reading time for two months, and it is one of the best books I read all year. As I shared in another post, I am doing self-directed schooling with a friend. I have, historically, stuck rather closely to fiction. I am so driven by story that instructional nonfiction is difficult for me. But I want to get better, so I am bridging my way into nonfiction with books that still contain story, like biographies and memoirs. In several books I was reading, mentions of Theodore Roosevelt abounded. Knowing little about him, I began to feel that I would enjoy him very much. So for my passion assignment, I decided to read this book and practice some letter writing between Roosevelt and some of his closest companions, working at writing from different voices, both male and female, as well as from a different time period. When the book arrived at my house and I saw that it was nearly a thousand pages, I considered changing my assignment. I still carried memories of the Bonhoeffer biography and, though I am fascinated with WWII, it took everything in me to trudge through that giant book. This book, in contrast, took as much work as sailing on a breezy summer day- so enjoyable one hardly notices the effort. The wind simply carried me where I wanted to go.

One reason for this, no doubt, is Theodore himself. He is a difficult man to be neutral about. Then as now, one either loves him or hates him. And despite my being in the former category, I was able to find many actions or ways about him I disapproved of. Edmund Morris did a wonderful job of describing both the strengths and weaknesses of his peculiar personality. He depicted Roosevelt enthusiastically but neutrally, with few exceptions. Roosevelt made this easy to do because of how public he made his life: befriending countless journalists, having written thousands upon thousands of letters, and consistently journaling from a very young age.

I especially enjoyed his youngest years: traveling with his family, the boundless energy, the early fascination with ecology, and more. I attended Harvard with him, where he began to stand out amongst his peers, grieved with him over the death of his parents, his wife, his brother and sister-in-law. I rode West with him through the Badlands, becoming a cowboy, rallied with him for justice in the Civil Service Reform, prowled the streets of New York in the middle of the night as the Police Commissioner, prepared and potentially provoked war as Assistant Secretary to the Navy, only to head the Rough Riders and lead out in battle amidst the jungles of Cuba. I returned with him to take the Governorship of New York, quickly succeeded by the Vice-Presidency, and only months later, the day in which he became the youngest President of the United States, following the assassination of William McKinley. That is where this book ends. To read more (as I will) you can follow him through the Presidency and the after years of his life.

If you enjoy biographies, this is a fantastic one, having won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, as well as being selected by the Modern Library as one of the top 100 nonfiction books of all time. I enjoyed every hour of it.

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God

51+5EHbLWwL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_ I chose to go through this book with my Bible study group. I enjoy Tim Keller and this was a subject I needed to delve into.

I came to this book in some desperation. I believe a number of things that are not evidenced by my daily life. We all feel this to some extent. For me, prayer is the area of my life that least resembles what I believe. Insofar as I am able, I’ve had to ask myself Is it really belief? Part of me thinks and feels in black and white. We believe something, we act in accordance. If the action is not there it is because true belief hasn’t taken place- doubt is in the mix. The other part of me knows all too well that the spirit can be willing and the flesh still weak. This is the murky condition in which I opened this book to read and to work out these inconsistencies alongside some others. If you are one of those others, thank you for the patience, the honesty, and the safe place you have been each Tuesday night this past semester. I know some weeks I came ready to fight and at other times, clearly indifferent.

If I was hoping to get some clear answers, this was not the book. Luckily, that wasn’t what I was looking for. I tend to find wanting the man or woman who has all the answers. I was looking for help- a space and a people and a guide to help me wrestle. This book was the guide, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. But if you really want to dive deep, I would recommend reading this with at least another person to robustly discuss it with. Within some bounds, Keller is open to several different methods of prayer and gives the reader a multitude of different tools. This widened my natural understanding of prayer and gave me the freedom to pray differently than I have historically.

One of the early questions we discussed as a group was How did you learn to pray? Did your parents teach you, did you only hear prayer from the pulpit, or was it at school? We all had widely varying answers, coming from a multitude of different backgrounds religiously, but the bottom line was we weren’t taught. Prayer is not something usually taught. It is something you watch and try to copy, but not directly instructed. I can understand some reasons for this, but overall, it seemed to have negatively affected many of us in the room to have never had any instruction. In that way, this book was helpful without being too narrow on how one should pray.

If you enjoy Luther, Calvin, or Augustine, then you will particularly appreciate some of the history of thought surrounding Christian prayer. It was a bit long, and toward the end, I was just ready to be done with it. My biggest critique of the book was that it took 300 pages to give instructions for how to pray, how not to pray, and extensive examples of prayer that would take significant amounts of time (some of the referenced theologians had the habit of praying for three hours a day). This seemed in stark contrast to the Lord’s Prayer, which was Jesus’ answer to the plea teach us to pray. The Lord’s Prayer: a simple, short, direct, thoughtful, unsophisticated prayer. To Keller’s credit, not all of the methods required an hour or more, he encouraged the reader to start small, and raised up the Lord’s Prayer as the ultimate example. Even still, one could come away from such reading overwhelmed and a bit disheartened. This does not, for me anyway, override the amount of helpfulness the book contained. And based on our group’s reflection on never being taught how to pray, its existence is absolutely necessary.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Ivan I bought this to read to my five-year-old. She is creative and loves story. She is, herself, a storyteller. She has the ability to be moved without losing it. Because of this, I’m able to read to her things that I would otherwise wait on until she’s a bit older, things I still haven’t read to my seven-year-old because she’s so sensitive she wouldn’t handle it well.

Again, there are no chapters. This one is written like snapshots in the daily life of Ivan. Some are a few sentences. Some go on for a few pages. He is a gorilla, after all. It took me some time to get Ivan’s voice right (since I was reading it aloud). I probably should have read further ahead of time to get a better feel for Ivan, who seems at first, rather aloof. But as the story progresses, the many pieces of Ivan begin to come together, and it is beautiful and touching. I will warn you though, that there are many sad parts, like when Ivan’s family is killed by humans, or when his best friend dies. It does, however, have a happy (but not too-happy) ending. Judge the appropriateness of these subjects for your children- you will know best. Penny Mae loved it, as did I.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway I began this book in a study of point of view, specifically when an author has several POV characters. There are rules for this, and though Virginia Woolf breaks most of them, she is heralded for it. Artful prose, like poetry, is that balance between following form, and knowing when to break with the form. Being consistent enough with your reader that they can follow where you are leading them, but making exceptions at some points to allow you to take them by surprise. We readers want this too. We bore of the books that do exactly what we predict, and even those that do what we want.

It is beautifully written, and reflected the inner life of the mind well. I valued hearing the inner monologue and its relationship to the outward actions of each of these characters. It would often bring up a memory or a thought such as, “Yes, I’ve done that before,” or “Yes, I have felt that same way.” It allowed me to connect with the characters, especially those of which, if one hadn’t heard their inner monologue, one would have guessed they had nothing in common, or even made up their own simple reasons for why that character did what they did. It is equal parts novel and study in human nature.

The difficulty I had with it was the lack of structure. At first I was baffled. There are no chapters. It begins and does not stop until it ends. I knew, before reading, that it would only cover one day of time, but dozens of pages in and only 15 minutes into the day, having jumped from the thoughts in Clarissa’s head to (anyone!) the florist, the couple passing by on the sidewalk, then back to Clarissa- I was bewildered. It jumped, and it jumped, and it jumped again with no warning, no transition. Once, about 10% of the way in (I read it on a Kindle) I realized this is what the whole book would be like, and I was able to let go of every assumption and drift along the current of her thought. Some people would take to this style of writing better than others- it may be too scattered for some. I did find it hard to keep up with all of the characters- some she returned to over and over again, while others you would hear from for a few pages and then never again. You never knew if this person, whose thoughts you were hearing, would be a significant part of the story or not.

All in all, it is truly different from most books and beautifully written. And if you are nervous because you’ve seen the movie The Hours, fear not! It was barely resembled.

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor

31XnCDjYnqL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_A friend lent this to me. I have been interested in Flannery O’Connor. I have always journaled struggled with journaling and am trying to find a way to journal that is more doable, more profitable, and more satisfying both now and as I look back. So I have loaded my bookshelves with published journals by some of the greats. This was my first one to read. Like I said, I did’t know Flannery yet- this was our introduction. I had heard so much about this book, as well as her other stories, so truly they have had profound effects on people. But it did not leave a lasting impression with me. I wonder if this was not the place to begin with her. Who immediately jumps into your personal diary upon first meeting, anyway?? Had she been somewhat familiar, I may have read her words differently. I got stuck in the simplicity, and truthfully, the Catholicism. There was also an undercurrent of self-deprecation that didn’t seem helpful. (Compare to John Steinbeck’s use of, what I would call, productive modesty.) The last entry, though it spoke so truthfully, left me extremely disheartened. However, I am not done with her. I plan to read some of her short stories and see if that adds some perspective to her words. I’ll let you know if it does!

The Vanishing American Adult

51etAA6pA1L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_My husband and I listened to this at the urging of a good friend as we drove to Colorado this summer. I was really interested in the topic: the cultural development of unending adolescence. I was nervous it would be too political- I don’t have the patience for that. What I was not expecting was the history and philosophy that would be entwined throughout the book. Had I been reading it and not listening to the audiobook, had I not been listening to Ben’s own voice, I could have forgotten he was a senator. He wrote as a historian, as a Christian parent, as a former university president. Those were the perspectives he wrote from, and I found so much of what he had to say as valid and absolutely necessary. As we drove, this book was fuel for a lot of engaging- and sometimes robust- dialogue between me and Hubs in the car.

It’s greatest downfall (besides the hypothetical commencement speech by Theodore Roosevelt) was the practical application of his points. I loved hearing the stories of how his family was instilling work ethic and raising their kids to be full functioning citizens benefitting the world around them. But his situation is different from most, and a lot of what he said wasn’t transferable from his life to mine. My kids aren’t homeschooled. I can’t pull them from school for a few months to send them to a cattle ranch. My husband has a Monday – Friday job he has to be at. We don’t live it multiple locations nor do we have the opportunity to do most of the things his family has the opportunity to do.

So it was one of those books that sets you ablaze, winding you up so that you can spring into action, but once you close the back cover and start thinking about how you are going to shake things up…a bit of frustration and disappointment sets in. Ben, we are working on it. Already, we are doing things differently and our kids are responding, and we are thrilled. And we will keep working on it- you gave us the holistic picture we needed, both of the grim result if we don’t, and the thriving end if we do.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

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I wanted to like this because people I love and admire really liked it. Maybe I went into it with too high expectations. It was sharp and funny, but I had a love/hate relationship with Bernadette. I liked her, but she was selfish, and her selfishness was devastating to others, but it read like you were supposed to forgive her for that because it was just her mysterious way. I couldn’t. I saw in her my tendency toward selfishness and the devastation that can have on those around me and I was angry with her, with me. Her excuses were not good enough. (No, neither are mine.) It was an entertaining read, but I hoped for much more at the conclusion.

The Gifts of Imperfection

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No one wants to talk about shame, but it is universally experienced. This book surprised me. I have a tendency to hate self-help books. I went into it both curious and dreading what I would read. The women in my Bible study group read it during the summer break. For me, as for most of us, it took some semantic maneuvering. All in all, it gets at the heart of some really true things. I can’t get behind all of it, but what did resonate with me gave me a lot to think about. And God- with his sovereign humor- gave me some experiences to practically apply some of what I read, on the golf course no less, so thanks for that.

The Glass Castle

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Now here is a book! This memoir shocked the hell out of me, despite hearing from several people years ago that it needed to be read. I finally did it so I can go see the movie- currently in theaters. Two things shocked me: it should have been heartbreaking, and I should have hated her parents. What could have been agonizing to read simply wasn’t. Let me give you an example- sandwiched in between talk of scorpions and Gila monsters and cats is this:

A month after we moved to Midland, Juju got bitten by a rattlesnake and died. We buried him near the Joshua tree. It was practically the only time I ever saw Brian cry. But we had plenty of cats to keep us company.

Lest you think Juju is one of the cats, it is her little brother. And here’s the surprise- despite the matter-of-fact way she presents horrific things in this book, the reader still feels the full effect of what has happened. I got to the end of that sentence above, and though it was in the middle of a paragraph, I stopped dead in my tracks and wept with Brian. And I wept all the more for the lack of tears in the story. Maybe she had to do it this way- I’m not sure I could have endured if she had not. Maybe she couldn’t have either.

The same was the case with her parents. She was gracious. She shared the awful, but she shared the beautiful too. She had come to a point of accepting all that they were, neither good nor terrible only, but a mixture of both. Despite my vigorous efforts, I enjoyed her dad. I went back and forth between anger and wonder with him….just as she did.

It is an incredible story incredibly shared.