Literary Ponderings

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Tasen) It's difficult for me to describe this book, but I have to say I recommend it. Here's the funny thing: there are quite a grammar oddities in the book, but early on the author indicates that he thinks it's a bit of a waste of time to worry about grammar. So....I guess that's part of the whole point. Oh, yeah. The that pretty much all predictions are totally bogus. There's more to it than that but let's just say that I'm spending my days looking for "black swans" now - for serendipitous opportunities that don't fit the patterns I see in my life right now.

Flipped (Wendelin Van Draanen) My daughter was 100% right. This book was AWESOME. Granted, it's written for middle school kids - but in my opinion that's probably one of the reasons it's great. Each chapter "flips" points of view. You hear how something happens from the boy's point of view, then the next chapter gives you the point of view of the girl. It's great because you get new details from each person and once you read the girl's view you have a lot of "ah-ha" moments. I highly recommend it.

Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert) This was pretty much the most amazing book I've ever read. I simply adored it. For one thing, it made me feel like a much more normal human being. I related to her offbeat (ok, I assume it's offbeat since I get it) way of looking at life and love. It was a blast to learn new things about cultures...for example...did you know that Italian is a beautiful language because Italian linguists or artists (I forget which) chose to make Dante's version of Italian the language for the whole country? Also...did you know that in Indonesia, babies are considered to be little gods sent from heaven until they are 6 months old?

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Grace Lin) My husband's sister gave this book to my daughter for her birthday but I read it before her. There's going to be a mother/daughter book club meeting about this book and she was in the middle of another book. I thought this was a very sweet and beautiful book about the fact that our true treasure is our family. 

Acts of Faith (Eboo Patel) My mom recommended that I read this book and she was right - I loved it. Eboo's mission is to open doors between young people of different religions. He talked about how the older people in the religions (all of them) often resisted their young people meeting with other faiths - in fear that they might lose their own faith. But that's not what happened at all. Everyone learned more and appreciated their own heritage even more because the strengths of other faiths highlighted the strength of their own faith.

Dune Messiah (Frank Herbert) I just can't decide. When I began this book, I thought it was ok but not great. But I really liked how it ended. (For those of you who've read it, I'm sure you now think I'm completely morbid.) So I have no idea whether or not I'll continue the series. That's frankly just too complicated for me to consider at this point in time.

Same Kind of Different As Me (Ron Hall and Denver Moore) To the anonymous poster who recommended this book: thank you very much. I simply adored it. I cried and cried and it came into my life at just the right time. Last weekend I attended the funeral of a very inspiring and spiritual woman, who happens to have been my best friend's mother. I suppose it was the combination of remembering a bible-focused woman and reading this very spiritual book, but I've picked up my Bible again. It's the same Bible I've had since Jr. High - my maiden name is embossed on the front and the Psalms are liberally highlighted and annotated. Same Kind of Different As Me spoke to my soul because it reminded me that we sometimes have to bang our heads against the wall to make a difference. But maybe that's what we're supposed to do. There's no doubt, however, that we're supposed to leave the world a better place than we found it. The story, in case you're curious, is about an illiterate, homeless, African American man and a slightly snobby, extremely wealthy, white man who become best friends. If you have some residual Southern Baptist childhood issues, as I do, you've gotta get past them or you might have a bad reaction to all the religious talk - but I believe it's genuine. The core message is that we've got to love each other.

Dune (Frank Herbert) I truly enjoyed this book. The winner of my contest told me that I would especially like the final line in the novel - she was right. I did. For those who haven't read it, it's one of those novels that stays in your mind for a while after you turn the last page. I keep wondering about the message Herbert was trying to make about politics and religion. It seems obvious to me, but then I wonder if that's just my own perception - not the intended point of the novel. Each character is flawed in his or her own way and you really do see how people are often trapped between a rock and a hard place - you see how the best intentions often give rise to evil acts.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick) This was a very cool book. It's billed as a combination regular and graphic novel, with film aspects thrown in as well. The illustrations were incredible. It took place in Paris during the 30's and one of the main characters was George Meliers (pardon the lack of appropriate apostrophes, I don't feel like figuring out how to insert them) - a pioneer in the motion picture world. I liked it for the way you got part of the story from the pictures and also because it's a story about how you make your own family. Family isn't always who you are related to by blood.

Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris (R.L. LaFevers) Also lots of fun....I was pretty bummed when I finished this book. As a matter of fact, it left me in a bit of a quandary about what to read next. Thus, I created the first ever Two Steps Forward contest, so I could get some good advice about books. I do recommend this series of books for any girls in the age range of 9-13, or anyone like me (who never really left that age range).

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos (R. L. LaFevers) I must say that this book was fun. The series is all about ancient Egyptian curses and a young girl who is able to recognize them in her parents' museum - she constantly works to undo them. It's fun to read books that might daughter enjoyed. Of course, as a general rule, I enjoy young adult literature much more than I enjoy regular, old adult literature.

The Tao of Willie (Willie Nelson and Turk Pipkin) My brother gave me this book for Christmas and it was fun. Willie and I have similar philosophies about quite a few things, as it turns out. Take that however you want to take it, I suppose, although I will point out that if you're wondering if we have a similar hemp philosophy - not so much. I've never tried it although I'm curious and if I'm ever in a country where it's legal, I might have to try it. Maybe. But his suggestion to really concentrate on breathing deeply and enjoying your life where you are is a great one and it's one I've been focusing on more this week since reading his little book of wisdom. Oh - and he tells some really corny jokes throughout the book as well - too corny to repeat here.

Stones Into Schools (Greg Mortenson) This was a great book. I have to say, however, that it frustrated me when I kept running into little grammatical errors that should have been caught by the editor. I shouldn't even focus on that, should I? Because, truly, it's a wonderful and inspiring story and I still want to be Mr. Mortenson when I grow up. I suppose it's a good lesson, however, about the fact that grammar really does matter. Especially when a nerd like me is reading the book.

Dark Materials Trilogy - The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass (Phillip Pullman) My original intention was to write about each of these books after I finished them but, just as it was the first time I read the trilogy a few years ago, I could never stop reading long enough to do anything else. Truthfully, I think they should be spoken of in one breath. You might remember that a few years ago a movie came out based on The Golden Compass. If you saw it then you got only the barest idea of what the story is about. The visuals were good, and that's something, but if you only saw the movie then you missed a lot. You probably were living on a different world (maybe one of Pullman's other dimensions) if you missed all the uproar that Pullman's work created in religious circles a few years ago. Pullman himself pulls no punches about how he feels about the church. He clearly can't stand it and I don't think there's any question about the fact that he doesn't believe in God. I guess I won't try to summarize the entire story for you but I will tell you that I gained more from this series of books (in a spiritual way) than I have from almost any other book I've read. The message I received is that there is no way that we, as humans, can truly understand God. Whenever we presume to know the mind of God, we create destruction and limit freedom. I also love the message that we get at the end of the series - our job is not to search for the Kingdom of Heaven or (worse yet) WAIT for the Kingdom of Heaven, but to create the Kingdom of Heaven where we are. We are supposed to live our lives each day, accept and give love to others, and make our world into a better place.

Madame de Stael (Maria Fairweather) I absolutely adored this biography and fell in love with this historical figure with whom I had no familiarity before reading this book. Her biography reads as an exciting (and sometimes racy) novel. She was amazing and, as I mentioned in my posting of her, I think I related to some of the passionate mistakes she was prone to making. The last line of the biography sums up, in many ways, why I understood her so well: "I have always been the same; lively and sad. I have loved God, my father and liberty."

A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving) My friends and family members were right on target about this book - it is truly something else. Irving has a real gift in that he's able to get you to truly relate to/understand/want to learn more about his characters. I would love to be able to communicate in that way. This book certainly made me question how strong my own faith is - I don't have the answer to that question.

Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) I finished this novel on the plane ride out to San Francisco and I can completely see why everyone raves about this book. I think every teenager should read it and I'm quite surprised that I was never required to read it. It definitely played with my head for a good 36 hours - I found myself dreaming of it and my thoughts sounded just like Holden's speaking style for a while. Anyway - good book. If memory serves, Salinger is a recluse. It makes me want to learn more about him.

The Shack (William P. Young) My mom loaned me this book and told me that although she was reluctant to read it (because of how religious some of the people who recommended it to her were) - she loved it. I have to say I agree. I can't remember the last time I shed as many tears as I did while reading this book, but I ended it with a lot more joy in my heart. Somehow, this book finally helped me understand that God's love is a whole lot more than the platitudes we hear in hymns and sermons. It had a profound effect on me. The odd thing is that it seemed to be the final piece of a trilogy of spiritual messages I received from three books which at first seem unrelated. (Art of Happiness, The Lost Symbol, and The Shack) I got the same message from all three.

The Lost Symbol (Dan Brown) I went into this book just expecting a Dan Brown thriller, with plenty of twists and symbol mysteries that he figures out in a few seconds (even though no one else in the history of the planet has been able to decipher them). That's exactly what it was...with an interesting surprise at the end. It turns out that I really liked the spiritual message of this book. So that was a nice little perk.

The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living (His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D.) I finished this book a few days ago and I can honestly say that it changed my life. I am seeing things from a completely different perspective now. (That is, a positive perspective.) I recognize that different people need different ideas - but I highly recommend that you give this one a try. The Dalai Lama is not at all evangelical, so it's not about "Buddhism" per se. It's really about finding joy and appreciation in our lives, no matter what's happening.

Reclaiming Virtue: How we can develop the moral intelligence to do the right thing at the right time for the right reason (John Bradshaw)
It took me a very long time to finish the book. It's about 500 pages, but the real reason it took me so long is that this book really challenged me. John Bradshaw is, of course, the psychologist who really brought the whole "wounded inner child" concept to the forefront in the 80's. Needless to say, a lot of what Mr. Bradshaw had to say hit home to me. A key premise of his is that the only way to become virtuous and have virtuous thoughts is to behave virtuously. The actions precede the feelings.

Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin)
This story is about Greg Mortenson's efforts to creat theCentral Asia Institute, which builds schools for children (especially girls) in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He literally sold all he had to go out there and make a difference and has created a great non-profit which is truly changing the lives of children. It's just as inspiring as you'd expect it to be. It also had the added benefit of being about the Himalayas, which I find exceeding fastinating.

Miracle at St. Anna (James McBride)
I liked the story and plot - I'm glad I read it but I have to say that the writing style was a little confusing for me. I think it was intentional, but the prose seemed rather non-linear, which really threw me off base. It was also very violent - and of course, war is violent and horrible. We tend to romanticize WWII - when the truth is that horrible things happened to soldiers on both sides of the war and the men who went through those things were never the same again. In short, I'm glad I read it - but there's no way I have the courage to watch the movie.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Doris Kearns Goodwin)
I absolutely cannot say enough about this book. I certainly expected that I'd like the book, but I had no idea how much I would love it. It completely drew me in as if it were a novel. I learned so much - not the least of which is the fact that Abraham Lincoln was the most loving, compassionate, and brilliant man ever. My pen was never far from me as I read it because I kept coming across sayings I wanted to underline - for example: "Hope is 'more than the sunny view that everything will turn out all right'; it is 'believing you have the will and the way to accomplish your goals." An interesting side note for me is that, as a Southern woman, it's inspired me to delve back into Gone with the Wind. I first read it when I was 16 and have watched the film countless times. The back story of the war from the perspective of the Union politicians helps me understand where the Southern perspective comes into play. And why it was such a legitimate perspective for my kin.

The Soloist: A Lost Dream, An Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music (Steve Lopez) Wow. That's about all I can say about this book. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing the movie now. It came into my life at a very opportune time because I've been learning a lot more about Mobile Loaves and Fishes and reading some of the academic articles on their website. All of this inspired a change of heart in me - I still plan to keep water bottles in my car to hand out to people but I'm going to stop worrying how my dollar might be spent if I give someone a dollar. It's not really my place to judge and many of these people are desperate for food, shoes, not to mention dignity. If my dollar and smile can help someone know that they are loved and that they matter - it's an excellent investment, as far as I am concerned.

The Book of Q: A Novel (Jonathan Rabb) This was a fun adventure book. I think I might have been a little disappointed if I'd paid full price, but for a buck at Half Price Book Store - it was totally worth it. It's in that genre of questioning "the church" and I always enjoy that.

Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House (Sally Bedell Smith) I enjoyed this book so much, although I must admit that I often felt as if I was reading a Tom Clancy novel - simply because it became impossible for me to keep track of all the characters. I ended up with a profound respect for both Jack and Jackie Kennedy (although the author cut them no slack - you read about all of their foibles). I found it especially interesting to read about the effect of having a young and active family in the White House since we now have that again.

A Year of Living Bibilically (A.J. Jacobs) Although this book is billed as a humor book, I have to say that it made a profound spiritual impact on me - especially in terms of how I look at observance of the Sabbath. It was very enjoyable to read, and very moving in many ways...but I also loved how no one seemed to be put in a "box" - whether he was interviewing snake handlers, Orthodox Jews, or employees at Jerry Falwell's church - everyone was treated with respect and you could catch a glimpse of what really made them tick spiritually. It's a difficult book to explain but I higly recommend it.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Leo Tolstoy) This book only took me a couple of hours to read - it's very short. But it will stay with me for quite some time, I'm sure. It's hard to describe but it definitely makes you look at your life critically as you ask yourself if you are really living life the way you should.

Interview with the Vampire (Anne Rice) I appreciated the writing style of this book, for the most part - and I'm glad I read it. After all, it is a classic of sorts. But I don't plan to read any of the other books from the Vampire Chronicles. It was pretty dark (no need to say "DUH..." to me here) and left me feeling kind of empty for some reason. Maybe I didn't completely connect with any of the characters. Which is probably for the best, since they are arguably soulless killing machines.

Chinese Cinderella (Adeline Yen Mah) I'm glad I read this book and I enjoyed the story, but I have to admit that the writing style was not as engaging as I wish it was. Because it was basically the autobiography of the author and she (quite understandably) has a lot of anger towards her family, it was very difficult to feel connected to any of the characters in the story. It also seemed to me as if she jumped around a lot and didn't make connections between the different things that happened. The lesson for me is a reaffirmation of something that's always been a struggle in my own writing - it's SO hard to tell your own story in writing because you have to separate yourself emotionally or else you can't have the objectivity you need for your art. I think a writer has to empathize with all of her characters, at least to a certain extent - or they don't seem real. (It's the same with acting, by the way.) When you're writing about people who hurt you - it's practically impossible to truly empathize. (Unless, of course, you're still in the Stockholm Syndrome phase of life...)

Fourteen Buttons (Joann C. Odenwelder) Joann is someone I knew from a previous job and she published this book, based on her mom's life during (and after) WWII. The main character, Annie, was a real inspiration to me and I wascompletely drawn into the story - especially since it all happened in central Texas!

The Blood of Flowers (Anita Amirrezvani) This book has touched me unlike any other book. It is the story of a young woman from Iran in the 17th century, who is a poor but a gifted carpert designer. She struggles with issues of self-esteem and ultimately finds herself. She is given the option to be a wealthy man's mistress, but eventually ends that relationship out of self-respect.

Fairest (Gail Carson Levine) Gail Carson Levine is the author of Ella Enchanted. I really enjoy reading her fairy tales written from a different point of view. Fairest is the story of Snow White and it's wonderful because the girl is not beautiful but she takes a potion to make herself beautiful and in the end realizes that the man she loves doesn't love her for her looks - but for what's inside. My daughter is reading it now.

Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul (Douglas Adams) Once I started reading this book (which my father-in-law handed off to me) I realized I'd read it before, but D. Adams is so goofy and esoteric, I had a blast reading it again. It gives me hope for humanity that his books are popular because it seems to me that you have to have a reasonably decent IQ and an ability to laugh at yourself to enjoy his books.

Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life (James Hollis) - As I mentioned in my December 2, 2008 posting - this book spoke to me beyond anything I could have expected. It's a very difficult book to read (as evidenced by the exceedingly long time it took for me to complete it) simply because the author pushes you to challenge yourself and ask yourself very difficult questions. I know I'll need to get my own copy so that I can underline and think some more about all of my issues. But in the meantime, I must admit that I'm looking forward to giving my emotions a bit of a break with some excellent fiction. I do recommend that everyone who is 35 years of age or older try to tackle this Jungian mountain.

Eragon (Christopher Paolini) - I enjoyed this book, for the most part, but am not driven to finish the series immediately, as I would be if I LOVED the book. My eldest wants to read it because one of her friends (a boy she's known since kindergarten) really loves the series. I won't argue with her about it, but there are certainly some scenes that really concern me if she reads it because there is violence in there and she's sensitive to such things, as I am.

Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden) - This book ended up with an entire posting on my blog, it affected me so much (see October 12, 2008). Something that really stayed with me after I set down the book was the idea that we are trained, as children, to expect certain things and certain behaviors during our lives. Even when we're faced with alternate realities, it's very difficult to turn away from what is the most familiar to us. Memoirs is a fictional account, but it is written as if it is a real memoir, and I thought it was one until I got to the end of it. It's inspiring in many ways, and also sad. From a historical perspective, it was fascinating because it offered a view of Japan during WWII which I've never heard before - I really got a sense of the oppressive harships that the citizens faced.

Princess Academy (Shannon Hale)- Just finished this book today (Sunday, Oct. 4) and I loved it. It's for children - but I tend to prefer books for younger people. Especially if there are elements of fairy tales in them. In short, a small mountain girl saves her entire village - it's a very inspiring book with really good descriptions of what happens to your heart and mind when you fall in love.

The Host (Stephanie Meyer) - I finished this book right before I started this blog and it will probably be one of the few books I re-read (I re-read the Harry Potter series - often - but it's not the norm for me). It's by the author of the Twilight Series, and was very well written and also ...profound - for lack of a better word. I want to re-read it because I can tell my mind is still working on the concepts of self-identity and love that it brought up for me...and what it means to truly find yourself. I'll have to post some of my favorite quotes from it later.