Sunday, March 15, 2015

"Quick Lit" for March: great fiction and non-fiction

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's monthly "Quick Lit" post to share what I've been reading.  I didn't participate last month, so this post contains two months' worth of books.


 All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr).  I was surprised and excited to receive this book as a gift from a generous, thoughtful online friend.  It's such a great book that I know I won't be able to do justice to it in a couple of paragraphs, but I'll try.  

The novel focuses on two young people:  Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl who flees to the walled citadel of St-Malo with her father (a locksmith at a natural history museum) to escape Nazi occupation; and Werner, a German boy who, because of his mechanical skills -- particularly with radios -- ends up in a brutal training school for Hitler youth.  Their parallel stories are told in short, alternating chapters that steadily build suspense.  Werner slowly succumbs to being a cog in the Nazi machine, and Marie-Laure is wrenched away from the safe world her father has shaped for her  -- until their two stories converge in 1944 and they each seize the opportunity to act with courage and heroism.  

Doerr is an amazing writer who can show us a scene and make us feel it using just a few words:  for example,  "A vault of stars hangs overhead; the collective breath of the cadets mingles slowly, nightmarishly above the courtyard."  Although there is dread and horror in both Werner's and Marie-Laure's stories, there is magic threaded through the whole book as well.  Part of that magic has to do with a myth about a rare and coveted jewel, but beyond that fairy-tale element there are also themes of music, science, adventure, and the power of radio to communicate and connect (something we may not be able to fully appreciate in 2015).  It's a sad book, yet it's also beautiful; and it uses an original style and two unique characters to give a fresh portrayal of a time period that's already been widely written about.

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Fierce Convictions:  The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More -- Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Karen Swallow Prior).  Although Hannah More's name is not well known today, this biography may change that.  In 18th/19th-century England, More was an influential writer, teacher, social reformer, and participant in the battle to end the slave trade.  Although her upbringing as a schoolmaster's daughter was modest, as an adult she moved in elite literary, social, and political circles and was a friend of William Wilberforce, Samuel Johnson, and John Newton, among others.  More had the ability not only to see a need but also to use her energy, connections, and other resources at her disposal to meet it.  It is inspiring to read how More, her sisters, and her friends mentored and exhorted one another in their efforts to do God's work in practical ways such as teaching the poor to read, writing edifying books and tracts to encourage virtuous living, and advocating for the humane treatment of animals.  Swallow Prior is an engaging writer, striking the perfect balance of scholarly detail and good storytelling to bring the "winsome" More to life for the reader.  And while the hilarious foreword by Eric Metaxas will make you want to  -- ahem -- "read more," Hannah More's life and accomplishments will keep you reading.

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 Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers (Leslie Leyland Fields).  I won this book in a draw on the author's website.  While I don't identify directly with the specific issues it addresses, I read Fields' blog regularly and always appreciate her writing.  (I was also interested in the subject matter in more general terms, having read Fields' rebuttal of a particular aspect of Desmond Tutu's writings on forgiveness.)

Drawing on her own experience with an emotionally and physically distant father, and on the stories of others, Fields explores the process of forgiving parents and moving into healing and freedom.  The book focuses on themes like honouring the dishonourable, acknowledging our common humanity, and reclaiming the past.  I appreciate how honest Fields is in sharing the messiness and uncertainty of this process:  her anger and helplessness when visiting her father, her uncertainties about what to say and how, and her regrets around her father's death.  These admissions remind us that real life is rarely tidy like the movies.  Yet the book is also empowering because it shows us that even if "they didn't" or "she can't" or "he won't," maybe we can.  Maybe we can reach out, forgive, be present, and speak words of healing -- not just to free and heal ourselves, but also to help bring restoration and hope into seemingly hopeless situations.

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The Center Cannot Hold:  My Journey Through Madness (Elyn R. Saks).  I saw this book mentioned in a post on Laura Droege's blog and was intrigued enough to get it from the library and read it.  Saks, a successful law and psychiatry professor, has lived with schizophrenia since she was about eight years old.  This engrossing memoir deals with her struggles to achieve academic and professional success, her experiences with therapists, her love-hate relationship with medication, and her social and personal challenges.  A tough book, but triumphant.

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The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes).  The narrator, Tony, looks back on his youthful friendship with Adrian, whom he admired, and his relationship with Veronica, whom he could never figure out.  After his breakup with Veronica and the death of Adrian, Tony moves on and, in effect, writes them out of his life for over 40 years.  But then a lawyer's letter about an unexpected inheritance brings the past back, forcing Tony to look at who he was back then and who he has become.  This novel isn't totally satisfying in terms of how it ties up plot threads; many questions are left unanswered.  But how Tony reflects on the passage of time, guilt and remorse, and the imperfection of memory is fascinating.  I read this book for my book study group; it's an excellent novel for discussion.

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18 comments:

  1. The Center Cannot Hold sounds like one I'll enjoy reading - I'm going to have to look for it. The first two also sound like ones I'd like, and they're already on my TBR list. And the last one is going on my list of options for my book club to consider for future picks, so thanks for all the good books shared this month. :)

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Sheila. I hope these give you some good ideas.

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  2. This is such an interesting list. I just downloaded The Sense of an Ending and Fierce Convictions, but haven't begun either—these reviews make me want to start today! I heard Leslie Leyland Fields speak about her book last year, but then I honestly forgot about it. I appreciate the reminder of your review. I've never heard of The Center Cannot Hold but it sounds intriguing, and what a great title! And I loved All the Light—so glad you enjoyed it. Sad and beautiful, exactly.

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    1. Thanks Anne - glad these books gave you some ideas for your own list. Apparently All the Light We Cannot See took Doerr 10 years to write; I'm not surprised, with all the detail and research it must have needed. It's a book I'll treasure and reread, I'm sure!

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    2. I've been wanting to read All the Light We Cannot See, and your post moved it to the top of my list!

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    3. I hope you like it, Steph -- it's such a wonderful book.

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  3. Thanks for the great reviews. The Center Cannot Hold sounds fascinating. The person I know with schizophrenia does not have a day job and probably hasn't in decades. Not to say she couldn't....I don't really know....but what a journey she must describe in her book.

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    1. Hi Anne - yes, it's just incredible what Saks has accomplished. Part of it is tremendous will power (which she acknowledges) but even as I say that I know triumphing over such a terrible illness is not just a matter of will power. There are so many factors involved. It's certainly a fascinating book.

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  4. Hey, thanks for linking to my blog post about The Center Cannot Hold. It's definitely a great read. It gave me a better sense of what it must be like to be schizophrenic, and a greater compassion for those with this disease.

    The Sense of Ending sounds like one I'll enjoy.

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    1. The Centre Cannot Hold was an excellent book, Laura. I also watched her TED talk; it was very similar to the last part of her book. I found it interesting to see her as a presenter.

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  5. I really enjoyed The Sense of an Ending. I didn't think that I would, but I'm glad that I read it.
    I think you summed up my feelings on All The Light We Cannot See well. I wanted a different ending, but it was still such a beautiful novel.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Sarah. I haven't talked to anyone other than people in my book club who've read The Sense of an Ending, so I'm glad you found it worth reading. It sure kept our group talking! And yes, I wished for a different conclusion to All the Light as well -- yet it was satisfying in its way. I'm still thinking about those characters.

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  6. This is a good post. I may have a look at the book about forgiveness.

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    1. Thank you, Sandy. Hope you do check the book out and that you like it.

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  7. Thanks for sharing your reading with us. I really want to read All the Light We Cannot See. It sounds intriguing.

    Last year I read a non-fiction book called Parallel Journeys, which also alternates chapters to tell the stories of a young boy in Hitler Youth and a Jewish girl. They went on a lecture circuit in the late 90's to talk about how they were both victims.

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    1. That sounds really interesting, Betsy. And wouldn't it be so fascinating to hear them speak together in a lecture?

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  8. Glad you liked Fierce Convictions, too. And great timing - I just got Doerr's book from the library. With your positive review, too, I'm looking forward to reading it.

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    1. Oh, I really hope you like it! Will look forward to your feedback in a future Quick Lit post!

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