My 2008 Reading Journal (with commentary on these books IÕve read)
Relentless by Robin Parrish - A pretty good suspense novel, a Heroes/X-men type story. Fast-paced from the word go and a fun read.
Riders of the Purple Sage - Zane Grey - My parents have always had a full set of nicely bound Zane Grey books, so I decided to try reading one of them. The prose describes well the beautiful Utah landscape, but the author tends to ramble. Still it's an engaging Western story.
Winter Tale - Mark Helprin - An excellent work of fiction, with the author's command of language and the imagination to see glimpses of the fantastic and glimpses of a restored Kingdom peeking through cracks in a contemporary cityscape. This is the first Helprin book I've read, and I'm hooked.
My Name is Russell Fink - Michael Snyder - Very funny and creative character-driven fiction. I hate using the word "quirky" to describe his characters, so I won't use it. I'll call them extra-human; they are flawed but goodness shines through in unexpected places. I couldn't classify this under a genre such as chick-lit, lad-lit, dog-lit, or chicken-soup-for-whatever-group-lit. I mean, how many books besides this one have a murder mystery, a clairvoyant dog and a family named "Fink"?
The Battle for Vast Dominion - George Bryan Povlika - A fun seafaring adventure series similar to Patrick O'Brien's Master and Commander series. Even though this is marketed as "Christian fiction", it's well-written and worth reading. Unlike most Christian fiction which is concerned with prairie widows and cheesy conversion scenes, theology is tied with the main character, a seminary student thrust into a swashbuckling adventure, in an intelligent way.
Par for the Course - Ray Blackston - Nothing heavy, a breezy character-driven comedy. Unlike his earlier books which point out the foibles of Christian singles' groups, this has more of a golf theme, as a driving course instructor in Charleston, SC, gets mixed up with a woman, with politics, and the intersection of these two themes. The author's voice is like a southern gentleman's version of Nick Hornby, but I'm hoping his next novel takes place in the spooky strange town of Savannah, GA.
The St. Louis Baseball Reader - A collection of essays, newspaper articles, and first-person accounts gathered over the years of the St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Browns. I find reading about old-time baseball to be fascinating, and the accounts of baseball greats like Stan Musial, Satchel Paige, and Bob Gibson are quite illuminating.
The Magician's Nephew- - C.S. Lewis - A charming beginning to the Narnia series, not as interesting as some of the later books, but the descriptions of the birth and growing of Narnia are imaginative.
The Next Christendom - Philip Jenkins - An eye-opening look at the expansion of Christianity in the so-called "Global South" -- the part of the world outside of North America and Europe. It's illuminated to see what is going on in Africa, Asia, and South America, the kind of things we don't see in the news. And it's important to us in our isolated American mindset, and especially to those of us who grew up in the even more isolated Evangelical suburban subculture, to see how different forms Christianity have started and have been sustained and expanded through the years in places where we hadn't expected them to.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - Michael Chabon - Listened to this one on tape on my way to and from the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, my second time through this novel. I liked how Chabon incorporated so many different elements: Holocaust history, family drama, romance, and a love for comic books.
Freddy and Fredericka - Mark Helprin - An odd mix of literay fiction and broad comedy that works beautifully due to Helprin's wit in this story of spoiled British royals forced to undergo a quest across America to prove themselves worthy of the crown. Genuinely funny characters, and lovely writing about the promise of the American dream, the wackiness of American and British politics, and an admiration for kings and queens.
Born Again and Again: Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood - Jon M. Sweeney - A touching memoir of a Christian who looks back on his upbringing in a Fundamentalist Independent Baptist church, and it's refreshing that he isn't bitter about it. He describes his spiritual journey away from Fundamentalism as he considers a monastic life, but eventually settles in a progressive Episcopalian church. He doesn't reject his upbringing, and he doesn't shy away from the ostracism he feels from his former church friends, but he is thankful for how his f upbringing prepared him for his current spiritual life.
Curses - Kevin Huizenga - Another book I picked up at the Calvin Festival. A graphic novel of short stories, more in the style of American Splendor than Batman, mostly featuring a character named Glenn Ganges, a twenty-something guy who lives in the suburbs with his wife. These stories feature both the mundane details of suburban life and the fantastical creatures that lurk within the imaginations of the people who live there, along with those that lurk underneath the boulevards, strip malls, and chain stores that dot the landscape. I was really impressed with the author's imagination and the simple beauty of the artwork.
So Young, Brave, and Handsome - Leif Enger - A masterful work. The prose transported me into the world of these characters. ItÕs like uncovering an untold myth of the old American West, and each sentence is constructed by a master of language. To me, Leif Enger surpassed his first novel, Peace Like a River because his voice was so strong, and he swept me into this story. I found the scope of the story mythic rather than realistic, a Western in the style of Terrence Malick rather than John Ford. And the most interesting character of the novel turned out to be one I didn't expect.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - C.S. Lewis - Read this book for the first time since I was a kid. A very enjoyable voyage of imagination and discovery.
Danny Gospel - David Athey - Something unique, a true first-rate literary novel in the genre of so-called "Christian fiction". An intriguing lead character who may not be totally sane, and his journey across America, through tragedy and comedy, through mysticism and faith, and finally toward peace. Beautifully done.
We Are the Ship - Kadir Nelson - A coffee table book illustrating paintings of Negro League baseball stars, each painting showing these men in beauty and dignity, and the prose offers a brief history of the Negro Leagues from the 1920s through Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier into the major leagues.
Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters and How to Talk About it - Krista Tippett - - By the host of NPR's Speaking of Faith program, a somewhat rambling yet often insightful look the mystery of faith, the inscrutable (to us) ways of God, and the truths that people from other faith traditions can tell us; and how these things intersect with the truths of Christianity, the history of the Christian tradition, the reality of evil, and the providence of God.
The Cloister Walk - Kathleen Norris -
A series of reflections on living in a monastic community. Illuminating of showing how monks and nuns really live in community, humanizing them without romanticizing their lifestyles.
The Shadow and Night - Chris Walley -
A rarity, theologically based science fiction that is really well done. A worthy successor to the legacy of Lewis and Tolkien. For a change, a novel (first of a trilogy) based on a Postmillenial eschatology rather than Premillenial, in a world get ten thousand years in the future whose peace is interrupted by the reemergence of evil. Strong characters and a unique take on the good vs. evil genre, done with imagination and foreshadowing an ultimate Armegeddon.
The God Factor - Cathleen Falsani -
A series of interviews with famous people from all over the faith (and no faith) spectrum on their views of God, religion, and how spirituality affects their lives. Some interviews were touching (with the genuine Christians), some interviews with seekers were interesting, some interviews with obvious deluded self-satisifed people (like Hugh Hefner) were kind of amusing. Still, Ms. Falsani proves her self a skilled and sensitive interviewer throughout.
Fearless - Robin Parrish -
Well done thriller, second chapter in the author's Dominion trilogy. Keeps the suspense and characters involving, and sets things up for an intriguing finale.
Stuff White People Like - Christian Lander -
Funny stuff, poking fun at an insular overeducated class of people that take themselves way too seriously and thinks they are much cooler than they really are. Christian Lander is like Jeff Foxworthy for the NPR crowd. You could do each of those entries in the Jeff Foxworthy style. Except substitute urban hipster for redneck. "If you don't have a television, but have ten copies of the New Yorker on your coffee table, you might be an urban hipster. As a bonus, this book also serves a handy guide for impressing girls at an Arcade Fire concert.
Scarlet - Steven Lawhead -
Good historical fiction, based on a reimagining of the Robin Hood myth based on the actual historical events of the period. Second book of a trilogy, and it is written from the perspective of Will Scarlet, an outsider who is drawn into the band of Hood's merry men. I didn't find Scarlet as interesting a character as King Raven (Robin Hood) himself (which was the basis of the first book of the series, Hood), but the story of this group of Welshmen fighting the injustice of the seizure of their lands by the English King known as William the Red, is engrossing, and the religious sensibilities of a church torn between competing Popes is well done, showing the upheaval of the church and the divided loyalties within the Crown itself. I'm looking forward to the concluding chapter of the trilogy to come out next year.
The Shack - Ernest P. Young - An OK primer's guide to a Arminian/Open Christian theology leavened with self-help inspirational sayings. The quality of writing isn't bad for an author's first novel, nothing any worse than what Dan Brown puts out. The portrayal of the trinity, I didn't find to be openly heretical, but a little too touchy-feely for my tastes. There were some well-done passages on grace and mystery, but repetitive passages about God cooking such marvelous goodies for his guest makes him sound a bit too much like Rachel Ray. All in all, I suppose this book can help someone who has experienced a great tragedy in their lives, but I wouldn't call it essential reading for most people.
Fieldwork - Mischa Berlinski - A richly detailed novel that explores the experience of two kinds of Americans discovering a new and strange world in Northern Thailand. An evangelist comes to the native land to set them free from their animist religion and tries to persuade to follow Christianity. An anthropologist comes to this land to learn the curious ways of this people. When a member of the evangelist's family is discovered to have been murdered by this anthropologist, an American journalist doing odd jobs in Thailand digs into the past histories of these two families to try to uncover the truth. Yet this murder mystery isn't the main point of the book, and the book is not a thriller. Rather, it explores what it's really like to be an anthropologist and to do slow painstaking fieldwork. The book covers the family histories in vivid detail, as well as the culture of this tribe of Thai natives, and holds all the mystery and fascination of an off-the-beaten-path travelogue. Well worth reading, as it presents the human and religious drama in all its messy complexity.
Auralia's Colors - Jeffrey Overstreet - My second time reading through this novel, and loved it again. The vivid details are a delight. I liked how the use of color is used to portray the transforming power of art and beauty. I'm looking forward to reading Cyndere's Midnight.
The Dark Foundations - Chris Walley - Second volume of the sci-fi Lamb Among the Stars trilogy that began with The Shadow and Night. This second volume reads more as a war novel than the first book, which developed this world and the characters. Now these characters are beseiged against a much stronger and more numerous enemy. The theology continues to develop, showing the difficulty of man's struggle against evil and against his own rebellion, and the dependence of man upon God's divine intervention. Another strong effort; I am looking forward to the concluding volume, which looks to develop some interesting plot points that have only been hinted at so far, and to expand the storyworld from one planet to the entire universe.
The Infinite Day - Chris Walley - Third volume of the sci-fi Lamb Among the Stars trilogy. A terrific way to end the series, as the plot finally leaves Farholme and explores other worlds, and finally Earth itself. The themes this series of books are explored to their fullest potential: the natural rebellious nature of mankind, the need to divine grace from God, the sacrifices and faith that are needed to defeat evil, the need for courage to make right decisions, the corruption at the heart of man-centered political systems, and the transformation of a humble man into a mighty leader who embraces his call to lead the forces of good.
Cyndere's Midnight - Jeffrey Overstreet - I really enjoyed this second book in Jeffrey Overstreet's fantasy series. I was moved by the struggle of Jordam the beastman to overcome his beastly nature, and the beautiful healing properties of Auralia's Colors (as opposed to the narcotic addiction of the beastmen's "essence"). And the author continues to unfold details about the world he has created, as well as revealing secrets about the people in this world, in a way that makes me look forward to reading the final two books in the series.
A Walk in the Woods (audiobook) - Bill Bryson - An enjoyable travelogue about a middle-aged man who decides to tackle the physical challenge of hiking the 2250-mile Appalachian Trail, accompanied by an old friend who is clearly not cut out for the outdoor life. A warm look at the beauty of nature and the challenge of man tackling nature without the comfort of a car or five-star hotel accommodations. Along the way, the author recollects the history of the building of the trail as well as the ravages of time and neglect that affect nature. A funny and inspiring look at man walking through, up, over, down, and around nature.
The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher - Rob Stennett - An amusing satire of the modern evangelical church and "seeker-friendly" pastors. A real estate agent one day sees a news report on an evangelical church. He notices that with the congregation raising their arms in the air, they look like they're begging for starter homes. He puts an ad in the Christian business directory and forms a successful real estate business selling exclusively to Christians. Then when he is innocently mistaken for a pastor while doing someone a good deed, he gets the crazy idea that by running his own church, he can build an empire. So he finds a small town in Oklahoma, starts his own services in a Chuck E Cheese with a few bored and curious onlookers, and through a series of self-help sermons and strange occurrences (including an appearance on Oprah) Ryan Fisher builds one of the hottest churches in America, despite Ryan's almost complete lack of knowledge about God, the Bible, or theology. Sure, it's far-fetched, but it shows some uncomfortable truths in how Christians often rush to catch the latest trend without discerning whether it is true. At the same time, the author tempers the satire with humor and genuine characters. I chuckled quite a bit at the author's voice and his ear for exploring the weirder side of pop culture.
Notes from a Small Island (audiobook) - Bill Bryson - Having visited visitied the UK twice in the past decade, I've become fascinated by this small island. Bill Bryson describes a trip he took through England, Scotland, and Wales, a last hurrah of sorts, as he was on the verge of leaving there after living there for twenty years to move back to his native United States. The journey is humorous and bittersweet as the author recounts the fascinating character of the people and the cities and villages he visits, while lamenting how modernization has eroded the uniqueness of a culture that had stood for centuries, but is now becoming increasing homogenized due to chain stores and concrete. I do wish he had devoted some time to extolling the virtues of Hobgoblin Ale and Theakson's Old Peculiar.
Watchmen - Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons - I was told this was the greatest graphic novel of all time. Since the movie is coming out next year, I read this. I'm no great expert on comic books or graphic novels, having not read widely in either genre. But as far as Watchmen, goes, it lives up to the hype. Not a typical superhero story, but one that incorportates mystery, character studies, alternative history, and a complex moral dilemma into the storyline. I'm definitely looking forward to the movie now.
Sweethears - Sara Zarr - A nicely-done story of teenaged friendship and the mix of emotions that come with trying to be popular, of finding and losing the one person who really understands you, and the complexity of negotiating teenaged life. These characters felt very real and the story grabs you and draws you into the world these characters live in.
Merciless - Robin Parrish - Third and final chapter of his Dominion Trilogy. This time the stakes are as high as you can get, nothing less than fighting ultimate evil and the end of the world. Issues of human choice and the theology of free will are woven into the story in a way that doesn't distract from the action-packed storyline.
Acedia and Me - by Kathleen Norris
An informative look in to a spiritual sickness that is largely ignored by psychologists, doctors, and even clergy: the condition that monks centuries ago termed "acedia", which is a malaise, an indifference of not caring about anything. Kathleen Norris looks at the way this condition was diagnosed by monks, and how the condition affects many people in our modern society, though they wouldn't call it by name. She also differentiates between acedia as a sickness of the spirit, verses clinical depression, which is a physiological condition due to impaired brain chemical functions. She also recounts her own struggle against acedia in the midst of her life as a writer and through her marriage to a husband with significant health challenges. Ms. Norris really gives an insightful look into a condition that affects so much of modern society, that is not named but whose effects are felt in human isolation, cynicism, and coldness of heart. We should learn to diagnose this condition in ourselves, and I am learning how much of my life has been affected by acedia.
Two books from Marcher Lord Press, the coolest new little publishing house in America, specializing in fantasy fiction that takes faith seriously.
Summa Elvetica - Theodore Beale
An intriguing mix of fantasy and theology that takes place in a world that is ruled by an organization much like the Catholic church. Fortunately, the church here isn't depicted as absolute evil like Phillip Pullman would. Here, a young is dispatched by the church's pontiff to find the answer to a thorny theological question: Do elves have souls. On the way to Rome, he gets caught up in an adventure where he is rescued by corrupt officials in the Elven kingdom and learns the truth about the Church and about the nature of God and the soul. An interesting look at the fantasy genre.
Hero, Second Class - Mitchell Bonds
Fun fantasy tale influenced as much by Monty Python and Terry Pratchett as by Lord of the Rings a nd Eragon. A quest involving a self-narrating swordsman, a wise-cracking dragon, a fair maiden that happens to be a cat-like species, an apprentice hoping to one day become a Hero, Second Class (and probably by the time of the next book in this series, a Hero, First Class). The author is only twenty years old, but shows a lot of imagination and wit, which will hopefully lead to a successful career, fame, money, all that stuff.