Wednesday, November 6, 2019

An Open Book: Falltime 2019 Books

Another month has begun, and with comes another installment of book reviews! Head over to Carolyn Astfalk's An Open Book for more great literary discussions. Over the past month, I read an assortment of books: some historical fiction, some non-fiction, and a couple of futuristic YA novels. Let's dive in!

The Mummy Case, by Elizabeth Peters.
This is the third installment of the Amelia Peabody books. Amelia, her husband and child return to Egypt, where they are faced with a sad/not-glamorous excavation site for the winter. A bunch of random things happen to them-they discover that an acquaintance of theirs is murdered, they meet a bunch of Coptic Orthodox people and a sect of Protestant missionaries, and they find themselves the unlikely owners of a baby lion cub. This story was a little hard for me to follow at times, since it was a bit all over the place, but I still enjoyed it. I loved seeing the main characters interact (Ramses, Amelia's child, is adorable and hilarious). There were, however, strong anti-Coptic Orthodox sentiments expressed by some of the main characters. Since the main characters came from Victorian England, it seems to fit attitudes that some people in Victorian England likely held, but it got to be a little overbearing after a while. Otherwise, I really enjoyed this!

Lion in the Sand, by Elizabeth Peters.
This was another delightful Amelia Peabody book. Amelia and her family venture back into Egypt, where they finally have the opportunity to excavate at Dahshoor. Things immediately go wild when Amelia's son is the victim of a kidnapping attempt and she, naturally, believes that the illusive Master Criminal is at work (much to her husband's dismay, because he thinks her conspiracy theory about the Master Criminal is a bit much). Naturally, more mysterious happenings take place as well, but thankfully Amelia has brought her trusty parasol along with her keen sense of adventure! This book was so much fun, and I enjoyed how it particularly centered on the teamwork and playful relationship between Amelia and her husband. 

How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: the triumph of beauty in Counter-Reformation art, by Elizabeth Lev.
This book had short, easy-to-read chapters (it was very approachable!) but was extremely in-depth as it described the religious climate of medieval Europe and the steps the Catholic Church took to reform in the wake of Martin Luther's dissent. This book features several gorgeous images of Counter-Reformation art (which the author chooses to call "Catholic Restoration" art) and the author, an art historian, lifts up various aspects of these paintings that teach and uphold particular truths of the Catholic Faith. At the end of the book, the author also includes a "Call to Action" with practical ways that we can transform our culture through the beauty of sacred art. I loved this book and highly recommend it!

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter (with Christopher Tolkien).
J.R.R. Tolkien is famously known for his work dealing with Middle-Earth, and in addition to being a professor and author, he wrote tons of letters. The letters in this edition follow the course of Tolkien's life and work, and they provide a lot of fascinating information about his upbringing and his writing. I have to admit that I did skim a few of the letters because they went so deep into languages, and I am not a brilliant philologist like Tolkien and it all went a bit over my head. Learning about the background of different LOTR characters was interesting, but I also really liked getting to see just how long and arduous the process of getting The Lord of the Rings published was. Tolkien really had to persevere-and I'm so grateful that he did, because that work is a masterpiece. This book is large and a little heavy to read through cover-to-cover, but I'm very glad that I did and it would make a great reference book or read for anyone who loves the work of Tolkien.

The Coffeehouse Resistance: Brewing hope in desperate times, by Sarina Prabasi.
This is a memoir about the author and her husband falling in love, getting married, and moving to America from Ethiopia. As they settled into American life, they really wanted to bring the coffee of Ethiopia with them. They started a coffeehouse in New York City, and decided that they wanted to create a hub of community within their coffeehouse. Furthermore, when the 2016 presidential election took place, they also decided to use their coffeehouse as a gathering space for political activism. I thought this book was really interesting, and I enjoyed getting to learn about the author's life and about her experience as an immigrant-particularly since she moved to America just a few years before the 2016 election. I thought it was neat that she talked a little bit about the role of coffeehouses as places of art, culture, and politics in history (as opposed to today, where many coffeehouses are quiet places where people work individually on their laptops). I do wish there had been more historical details and discussion about this, since I find it very interesting. Overall, though, I enjoyed this book-even though I didn't agree with all of the author's views, I still found her perspective valuable to read. If you like memoirs or learning about the immigrant experience, you may like this book-just be warned that if you are a hardcore fan of President Trump and do not like hearing opposing views, you may not like this book. 

A Timbered Choir, by Wendell Berry.
This is a collection of Berry's Sabbath poems from 1979-1997. From what I understand, Wendell Berry would take solitary walks in nature on Sundays and sometimes write poetry based on his experience. In these poems, he reflects on life, death, love and community, prominently through observations of the natural world. They were beautiful, simple, profound reflections. I really enjoyed reading these!

Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry.
The barber of Port William, Jayber Crow, walks us through his life-from dropping out of seminary to becoming a barber and moving to Port William and ultimately becomes part of the community. Jayber, while not really practicing a religion, does seem to "convert" in this book as he ultimately sees the importance sacrificing himself and living wholeheartedly for the Other. I've noticed that some reviews of this book reference Dante's Divine Comedy, which make a lot of sense-Jayber does go on a journey in this book, and even has his "Beatrice" who he looks to as he grows in understanding how he should live his life. This book was fascinating and so, so deep. There's a lot in here to reflect on. If you haven't read Wendell Berry before, I'm not sure that you should pick this up first (since it is quite large), but I recommend picking it up at some point if you enjoy Berry's writing!

Organized Simplicity, by Tsh Oxenreider.

This was a quick read all about living a simple life. Far from being a book only about decluttering, Oxenreider begins by talking about the importance of figuring out what your family's purpose is-and looking critically at your life and work habits to see how your family's purpose is guiding your life. I really thought this was a great point for her to make. She also talks a bit about how owning "stuff" takes up a lot of time, so if we want to make time to pursue various interests, we may need to have less things in our life. From there, she dives into her method of decluttering room-by-room. This was a decent book, and I really loved what she said in the early chapters, but when it started getting into the decluttering aspect, I lost interest. I have read many, many books on decluttering and simplicity, and I should probably stop picking them up because when it comes to the decluttering methods, they're all very similar it seems. This book helped me have a nice boost into decluttering, though, and it encouraged me to run through the house and start putting together piles of things that we haven't used/read/worn in a long time. So that's a plus!

Brightly Burning, by Alexa Donne.
This was an enjoyable sci-fi retelling of the classic novel Jane Eyre. It's YA, so it's a quick and easy read and the premise is pretty interesting: The members of Earth blasted into space when an Ice Age hit the Earth. Their descendants have continued to inhabit those ships over the years, farming crops and raising animals for food. Some believe that they can eventually go back to Earth to resettle, but without actual evidence that the Ice Age is over, Stella Ainsley and some of the others are hesitant to leave orbit. But, what Stella does know is that she'd love to move on from her ship before she turns 18 and gets locked into her engineering job permanently. She is grateful when she is accepted as a governess on a private ship called the Rochester. The ship is reportedly haunted (she hears eerie laughs at night) and some members of the crew are a bit strange (she really doesn't know what to make of the captain, Hugo), but her life is much better there than on her previous ship, and she comes to enjoy living on the Rochester. Of course, things can't stay peaceful for long. There are mysteries, conflicts, and before she knows it, Stella has become a pivotal player in the future of humanity. I have to say that in this book, I found Hugo Fairfax (Rochester's character) a little bit more likeable/sympathetic than the original version of Rochester (and not as creepy). I wasn't into a couple of mushy kissing scenes and thought them skippable, but this was a very fun read overall.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott.
This was a collection of stories and advice that Lamott, a bestselling author and writing instructor, has offered to her students over the years. I found some of it funny, a lot of it insightful, and some of it completely relatable. My biggest takeaway from this book was the importance of focusing on the joy of writing. I've had some bad experiences with people who try to push the agenda of "if you want to write, you need to write what is marketable," so I deeply appreciate that the author does not focus on publishing as the "big goal" of writing (in fact, she  makes sure to emphasize that in most cases, becoming published does not make you famous or rich), but rather that we need to write so that we can understand ourselves, understand others, and pass down our stories.

Scythe, by Neal Shusterman.

This futuristic novel centers around a society where perfection has been achieved. All knowledge is contained in The Thunderhead (the "cloud" on computers, which had developed to gain consciousness) and there are no longer diseases or wars or natural death. The Thunderhead provides solutions to many of humanity's problems, but because people don't die naturally anymore, there is an overpopulation problem. To deal with this, an elite group of people called the Scythes glean (selectively kill) various members of the population. Two teenagers are unexpectedly chosen to apprentice under a scythe, and this book follows their journey and the dilemmas that they face.  I thought this premise was fascinating, particularly in the way it causes you to reflect on how death (or a lack of it) impacts our lives. Parts of the novel started to slip a little too much into Hunger Games for me (the boy-girl relationship, mainly, though it wasn't as well-written as the relationships in HG) and I honestly thought the writing involved too much "telling" and not enough "showing." After reading several of this author's books, I have concluded that I personally don't like his writing style, but I do like how his stories probe one's mind and make you think about different life-and-death issues. I didn't like this book as much as Unwind,  but I still enjoyed reading it and I'll probably read the next one in the series so I can see what happens!

Thanks for joining me this month to talk about a books! Let me know if you have any recommendations, because I am always excited to read new-to-me authors :)  


  1. Well, just added two more books to my to-read list! (Bird by Bird was already on it.) I'm guessing Elizabeth Lev's book is better in book format that ebook, correct? Thanks for linking up again!

    1. I'm so glad I could help you expand your reading list :) I rarely read e-books, so I'm not sure what it would be like to read Elizabeth Lev's book in that format. Getting to see the high-quality images that she discusses is important, I think, so I'd personally go with the physical book. But it probably depends on what kind of reading device you use for ebooks, too.

  2. I've been loving Katherine Reay!! Loved The Printed Letter Bookshop and currently in the middle of Dear Mr. Knightley. So happy to have found a new author...curious to know what you'd think of her books...they're very different and hard to describe.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I read Dear Mr. Knightley a couple years back, and I remember enjoying it quite a bit. I don't think I've read anything else by her, so I'll have to check out The Printed Letter Bookshop!