Wednesday, September 1, 2021

An Open Book: August 2021 Reads

Happy September! It's time to link up with Carolyn Astfalk's An Open Book to chat about what's been on my reading shelf lately. There's a few interesting historical pieces and some fiction (including a fun apocalypse novel). Let's dive in! 

Severance, by Ling Ma.

Apparently everyone read this early on in the pandemic, so I'm a bit late to the party. Set in 2011, this story follows Candace Chen, a young immigrant who works in the Bible manufacturing business. Her typical young adult life is thrown topsy-turvy when Shen Fever, a virus from China, makes its way to the United States. Shen Fever rapidly zooms through the community, and when it infects people, they fall into a daze of repeating mundane tasks (putting on lotion, setting the table) until their bodies disintegrate. I'm not the first person to recognize the eerie similarities between this 2018 novel and the Covid-19 pandemic, and it was a fascinating read. I could have done without all the sex content, but otherwise I really enjoyed this book. 

The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women, by Laura Swan, O.S.B.

I found this well-researched and reflective book on the ammas (mothers) of the desert in the 3rd and 4th century easy to read and quite interesting. The author gives short profiles for various women and communities that women founded, and when there are writings left from some of the ammas, she includes quotations from them with her own reflection on the ammas' words. The author did seem to have a pretty liberal, pro-female priesthood stance, so I did not agree with all of her comments and positions that she laid forth, but otherwise I enjoyed this and wound up marking several pages-there was a lot of wonderful food for thought in here, both from the ammas and from Swan!. 

Silas Marner, by George Eliot.

When he's falsely accused of a crime, Silas Marner leaves his home and takes up residence at the edge of the small English village of Raveloe, where he lives as a reclusive weaver. His only joy really comes from looking through his piles of money at night---until one day, when his money is stolen. This book was small, and it was so good. Silas's journey and transformation is beautiful, and there was a lot in here about suffering, community, and sacrificial love. I honestly don't know why people only seem to ever talk about Eliot's book Middlemarch, because this book is fantastic! (and it being much shorter makes it much more approachable!) This is well worth a re-read. 

Paper: Paging through History, by Mark Kurlansky.

This was a really interesting dive into the history of paper, papermaking, printing, and writing. The author has obvious biases and throws in lots of names, dates, and tangents, so this book was a bit tedious and took me a while to get through-I'd read a bit, put it down for a few weeks, read more, etc. I hadn't really thought before about how controversial writing was, and the role that paper played in religions, governments, and people's daily lives. This was interesting, but I've read that the author's book on salt is better, so I might pick that up eventually instead. All that being said, this book has piqued my interest in various parts or features of the development of paper and the use of paper today, which I want to look into more in the future. 

Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear.

Set in 1920s England, this book introduces Maisie, a young single woman who has begun her own practice as a private investigator. Approached by a man who suspects his wife of infidelity, Maisie finds herself wound up in the fate of soldiers in WWI and the mysterious existence of The Retreat, an estate for veterans with horrific wounds to rest away from the prying eyes of the public. The plot intrigued me, and I love reading stories set in WWI, but although the book has won awards and is beloved by many people, I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would. A huge problem for me is that, after jumping into the story about Maisie taking on the suspected infidelity case, the author then spent the next hundred or so pages in a flashback, and things really lost their momentum until the end of the book when the story moved back to present-day Maisie. The mystery elements didn't really work for me as much, either. So, I loved the idea, but I don't think I'll be reading any more in the series anytime soon. 

To a God Unknown, by John Steinbeck.

While at the library, I spontaneously decided I wanted to read something by Steinbeck, and the only books they had on the shelf were East of Eden (which is incredible, but massive) and this one. So, I picked this up and it was...interesting? Weird? Thought-provoking? Disturbing? In this short novel, Joseph Wayne asks for his birthright and blessing before his father's death, then travels out West to settle on land and create a farm. Joseph lusts for life in the land (to a disturbing degree), and in a way, starts to see himself as a deity who is in and above the land. When his father dies and the rest of his siblings and their families come live with him, Joseph believes that his father's spirit now inhabits an oak tree on the property, and he begins offering sacrifices to the tree in secret. The story meanders around a lot, with a couple of orgies thrown in, but that's the basic gist of it. Admittedly, I did skip a couple of parts that were just too weird and dark for me. Steinbeck's writing is gorgeous, and I did really appreciate some of what he showed in here about the need to respect each other and nature, but I don't foresee myself re-reading this one anytime soon. 

The Woman Who Smashed Codes, by Jason Fagone.

This was a very fascinating story about Elizebeth Friedman, who-with her husband, William-developed cryptography in America in the early 20th century. Parts of the author's writing came off as too casual and/or unnecessary to me, but overall, this was a very fascinating deep dive into the life and work of a woman who is not well known, and yet can truly be considered a hero and prominent figure in U.S. history. It was a very fun read about something I knew very little about, and I recommend this to anyone interested in history, cryptography, World War II, or the history of spies! 

The Art of Praying, by Romano Guardini.

In this very approachable, insightful book, Guardini tackles the topic of prayer. He discusses the importance of preparation, and different kinds of prayer. He discusses the ways in which prayer is essential to our faith lives, and he talks about challenges that can arise during prayer. He also has some sections where he talks about the differences between Liturgical prayer and personal prayer, and he has lots of words of encouragement for people who are struggling with prayer and/or are experiencing intense dryness in the spiritual life. I wound up underlining most of this book, and really loved it. There was so much wisdom in here, and I highly recommend this book! 

Thanks for joining me this month! If you have any recommendations, please drop them in the comments!


  1. I love how varied your reading is! The Steinbeck sounds just...weird. Hard pass. But, I'd like to read Silas Marner - which I always thought was Mariner, and I see it is listed as both. I'm sure there's a story behind that. Thanks for linking to An Open Book!

    1. I hope you enjoy Silas Marner! I'm so thankful that someone recommended it to me a while back and that I finally read it-it's a beautiful story :)

  2. I love how varied your reading is. I'm adding these to my list!