Book Review: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Ben-HurTwo young men sat in a garden in first century Judea. They had been close childhood friends, but now they realized they must come to a parting of the ways. Their culture, religion, education, and training pitted them against each other. One was a Roman, Messala; one was a Jew, Judah Ben-Hur.

But their parting signaled more than the loss of friendship. A procession of the Roman governor and his guard passed by Judah’s house one day. As Judah and his sister leaned over the parapet to watch, his hand accidentally loosened a roof tile, which fell and hit the official, knocking him off his horse. The guards stormed the house, and Judah was accused of attempted assassination by none other than Messala. Judah’s mother and sister were seized and taken away, the Hur home was confiscated by the Roman government, and Judah was made a galley slave in a Roman ship.

In Judah’s third year as a galley slave, Quintas Arrius took over the ship to combat pirates. Arrius noticed Judah and asked about him. He was stunned to learn that Judah was the son of someone he had known, a prince in Judea. When a sea battle wrecked the ship, Judah saved the life of Arrius. Arrius adopted Judah as his son, had him trained in Roman fighting, and left him all his wealth.

Judah had two aims in life: to find his mother and sister, and to exact revenge on Rome in general and Messala in particular. He found opportunity to face Messala in a chariot race.

In his travels, Judah heard of a man named Jesus who was the source of much controversy. Some thought Jesus was the promised Messiah, arrived to set up his kingdom. Most thought the kingdom would be an immediate physical one, unseating and defeating the Romans. A few thought the Messiah’s kingdom would be a spiritual one. Judah threw all his influence and training into getting an army ready for the day Jesus would announce himself as King. But Judah also pondered Jesus’s teaching and wonders who he really was.

The subtitle of Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace is A Tale of the Christ. Although Christ is physically in the plot a short amount of time, He is a subject of consideration for much of the book. The story actually begins with three wise men meeting in the desert, discussing their backgrounds and how they came to faith in the one true God and were led by a star. Then they journeyed together to find the newborn king. Some twenty years later, the lone surviving magi, Balthasar, came back to Judea to see the now adult King take His place. This was the first novel with Jesus as a major character, and though Wallace made up scenes, descriptions, and actions involving Christ, as an author he respectfully did not put words in Jesus’s mouth. The only words Christ speaks in the story come from the Bible.

This story was spurred by a conversation Wallace had on a train with noted atheist Robert Ingersoll. Though Wallace wasn’t particularly religious, he felt Ingersoll was wrong. Wallace felt ashamed that he did not know more. He decided to research Christianity, eventually came up with the idea of framing the story and teaching of Jesus in a novel, and became something of a believer himself in the process. His novel became an all-time best-seller.

Many are familiar with the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur. The book, of course, goes into much more detail, and there are a few differences in some plot details between the two. (One interesting tidbit – but don’t read if you don’t want too much of a spoiler! In the film, Messala cheated in the chariot race by having spikes on his wheels with which he attacked Ben-Hur’s chariot. In the book, however, it was Ben-Hur who clipped Messala’s wheel in a slight action unnoticed by the crowd, causing the latter’s chariot to wreck. Though Ben-Hur was out for revenge, this isn’t treated as cheating in the book – in preparing for the chariot race, Ben-Hur noted the need to be alert to the Romans’ tricks. In fact, earlier in full sight of the crowd, Messala used his whip to strike Ben-Hur’s horses, causing them to leap forward. So it seems like this kind of thing was part of the race and not penalized.)

One of my favorite passages in the book comes after Messala tried to upset Ben-Hur’s horses and throw them off course:

The four sprang forward affrighted. No hand had ever been laid upon them except in love; they had been nurtured ever so tenderly; and as they grew, their confidence in man became a lesson to men beautiful to see. What should such dainty natures do under such indignity but leap as from death? Forward they sprang as with one impulse, and forward leaped the car. Past question, every experience is serviceable to us. Where got Ben-Hur the large hand and mighty grip which helped him now so well? Where but from the oar with which so long he fought the sea? And what was this spring of the floor under his feet to the dizzy eccentric lurch with which in the old time the trembling ship yielded to the beat of staggering billows, drunk with their power? So he kept his place, and gave the four free rein, and called to them in soothing voice, trying merely to guide them round the dangerous turn; and before the fever of the people began to abate, he had back the mastery.

Ben-Hur’s time rowing as a galley slave, which he probably thought of a lost period of his life, gave him the strength and training to handle this.

I watched the film and read the book some years ago. I enjoyed reading it again, although I found it rather wordy and overly descriptive (naturally, since it was published in 1880), which I don’t remember thinking the first time. But I enjoyed it, though I wouldn’t take my theology from it, especially the frequent grouping of “love, faith, and good works” as a way to “win heaven.” Wallace did a lot of research and explained a lot of history, and he gives a realistic description of the Jewish and Roman cultures and what Jews in that day might have been expecting. There is an interesting article here about Lew Wallace’s life and career.

I mostly listened to this audiobook version but read parts in the Kindle version. The narrator sounded a little bored in places, but did a good job in others. I listened to samples of other narrators, but none of the others sounded any better. The sound quality is one of the worst I have ever received in a book by Audible – there are several places where it sounds like it was a recording of a cassette tape that had been pinched or bent in places.

I recently learned that Wallace’s granddaughter, Carol, read his book for the first time and enjoyed it, but thought it needed to be rewritten in less “stilted” language, so she did so. I’d be interested to read that some time.

A 2016 remake of the film changes the plot in many places (making Ben-Hur and Messala adopted brothers, for instance), so I am not interested in seeing it.

Advertisements

Book Review: Another Way Home

Another Way Home Another Way Home by Deborah Raney is the third in her Chicory Inn series involving the family of empty nesters Grant and Audrey Whitman, who have turned their family home into a bed and breakfast. (The first was Home to Chicory Lane; the second, Two Roads Home.) Though the whole family of their adult children, sons- and daughter-in-law, and grandchildren are in every book, each book in the series focuses on one particular child and his or her family.

This time the spotlight shines on middle daughter Danae and her husband Dallas. They have been trying to conceive for years with no results except tension in their marriage and resentment and hurt on Danae’s part. She’s particularly stung when sister Corrinne becomes pregnant – again – unexpectedly without even trying. Danae can’t keep her resentment from showing, and Corrinne feels guilty and unsure when to even announce her news to the family. Though the family empathizes and tries to be sensitive,  Danae resents their well-meaning questions and concerns and sympathy. Dallas especially feels he has to constantly walk on eggshells around Danae. Dallas won’t even discuss the possibility of adoption, for reasons which he won’t share, even though he himself was adopted and raised by a loving family.

Danae decides they should stop fertility treatments and the quest to have a baby for a while. To try to occupy herself, she responds to an announcement at church asking for volunteers at a women’s shelter. There she becomes friends with another older volunteer, Bertha, and gets involved in the lives of one of the women there and her son.

I don’t want to say any more than that so as not to give the story away.

I love how Deborah doesn’t sugarcoat any of the facets of the story. All of the characters’ struggles are gritty and realistic while they seek for God’s direction, provision, and grace.

Book Review: He Fell In Love With His Wife

He Fell In Love With His WifeI first encountered He Fell in Love With His Wife by Edward Payson Roe at Carrie’s review at Reading to Know (which is currently offline, so I can’t link to it just now.) It sounded so good that I got it when it came up for free on the Kindle, but I just got to it the last several days.

This is the sweetest story – not in a syrupy or cloying way. It’s the first book in a long time that had me trying to squeeze in extra minutes to read and missing the characters when I finished.

The story opens with James Holcroft at a low point. His only ambition was to enjoy a quiet life on the farm where he grew up. He had married a quiet, sensible girl he had known since childhood, and though their relationship wasn’t a highly romantic one, they had “something that often wears better—mutual respect and affection.”

But his wife had died a year before, and on top of missing her, he found he was having a hard time working the farm alone. He was just about to give it up, but he decided to try hiring a housekeeper. The two he tried, however, made his life much worse.

He decided to sell his stock, went into town for that purpose, and stopped to talk with his friend who ran the poorhouse. His friend told him of a woman there, Alida, who was in dire straits. She had been deeply wronged and felt horribly ashamed and feared town gossip, even though her troubles were not her fault. She currently had almost nothing to her name.

Holcroft’s heart went out to the woman after he heard her story, and eventually he devised a plan to help them both. His previous housekeepers were older widows, and one had a daughter, so it was acceptable for him to employ them at his out-of-the-way farm. But Alida was near his own age, so he suggested that they have a “business” marriage in name only.  She could help him on the farm, and he would provide for her, and the marriage would protect her reputation. The quietness and remoteness of his home appealed to her, and he seemed a kind man, but she was afraid the stain of her background would taint him. After a lot of discussion, though, they agreed.

Of course, the title tells what happened. This isn’t the first story of a “business” or arranged marriage where the couple truly came to love one other. But this avoids silly, flighty romance and portrays a mature story of two wounded souls finding healing and respite, and for Holcroft, a faith he thought he had lost.

Some parts, especially with the first two housekeepers, are quite comical, but the rest of the story is full of warmth and pathos. Since it’s written in an older style (it was published in 1886) it’s more descriptive than current books, but to me the story flowed nicely without getting bogged down as some older narratives do.

Just to forewarn some of you, there is one expression in the book that today is considered quite vulgar, but I think it can’t have meant then what it does today, partly because Roe was a Presbyterian preacher, and partly because I hadn’t heard the term myself until the last few years. I don’t usually read or listen to much where I know I am going to come across vulgar terms, so I am sure it has been around longer than I was aware. Still, nothing in the character of the book would lend itself to thinking it was used then as it is now. Plus Holcroft reacts to some rabblerousers  in a way we’d consider violent today, but it seems to have been taken in stride then.

I wasn’t sure if this book would count as a classic: I wanted to include it for my Back to the Classics challenge under the category of a “classic by an author that is new to you,” but, just because a book is old doesn’t mean it is a classic. However, according to Wikipedia, Roe’s books were “very popular in their day,” and they are still being read for enjoyment today, so that sounds like a classic to me!

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

Book Review: Reading People

Reading PeopleIn Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, blogger and author Anne Bogel discuses the basics of seven personality frameworks.

Anne’s own “Aha! moment,” as she calls it, came in early married days when she and her husband disagreed. She was emotionally expressive, but he seemed to shut down. She thought he was shutting her out and didn’t understand, and she got more upset. After one such encounter, she picked up the library book about personalities that she just happened to be reading, and found herself at a part that described each of them perfectly. She realized that just because her husband didn’t respond emotionally as she did didn’t mean he didn’t understand. His calmness wasn’t indicative of coldness.

Anne compares “understanding personality [to] holding a good map. The map can’t take you anywhere. It doesn’t change your location…the map’s purpose isn’t to move you; it’s to show you the lay of the land. It’s a tool that makes it possible to go where you want to go” (p. 15).

We want to know more about ourselves and the people we interact with every day. We suspect our lives would be better if we actually understood ourselves and the people we love. We want to know why we do what we do, think what we think, act how we act–and why they do, too (p. 12).

The frameworks in this book can highlight what upsets you (and why) and what makes you hum. They can help you understand what’s causing friction in your relationships, and what to do about it. They can open your eyes to what’s really going on in situations that currently make you batty (p. 19).

Once you understand yourself, you can stop fighting your natural tendencies and plan for them instead (p. 43).

It can be difficult to pinpoint one’s exact personality with some of the frameworks because we tend to answer the assessment questions according to how we want to be or think we should be rather than how we really are. Also, no one personality indicator fits individuals 100% in every aspect. But, Anne says, one will fit more than the others.

And even though we might not be able to pinpoint other people’s personalities, we can understand that they are different from us, and that’s not a bad thing.

Because we live in a world with many other people…we need to be not only smart about meeting our own needs but also gracious about their needs…we have to learn to be flexible (p. 52).

Understanding our personalities doesn’t eliminate the tension that results when people with different needs, motivations, and preferences come together or, especially, live together. But understanding things beneath the surface–why people act the way they act and prefer the things they prefer–helps us at least make sense of what’s going on. These people are not out to get us or trying to ruffle our feathers; they’re just different–a different kind of normal (pp. 54-55).

When we bring personality types together, communication breakdowns are inevitable…Thinking types may feel they’re being considerate by getting straight to a point in a conversation, unaware that their feeling friends perceive them as uncomfortably blunt. Intuitive types may think they are contributing by sharing their grand plans in a team meeting, unaware that the thought of so many changes at once completely stresses out their sensing colleagues. Extroverted types may feel disappointed when their spouses don’t immediately respond with enthusiasm to their ideas, ignorant that they just need time to think the ideas over (pp. 136-37).

The different personality frameworks Anne discusses are:

Introvert vs. Extrovert
Highly Sensitive People
The Five Love Languages
Keirsey’s Temperaments
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
The Clifton StrengthsFinder
The Enneagram

She shares a condensed version of what’s involved in each of these, how they are tested, where to find the tests, their difficulties, right and wrong ways to use the information. She does not suggest that readers use all of these; rather, she encourages us to choose which one resonates with us the most and go from there.

Her last chapter is “Your Personality Is Not Your Destiny.” Even though some of our traits are hard-wired, character can be developed. “My personality traits don’t determine my destiny, but they inform it” (p. 201).

Personality changes are incremental–and gradual. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t change much; after all, our personalities are only one part of what makes us who we are. Our personalities may be resistant to change, but our behaviors are significantly more pliable. Understanding our personalities makes it significantly easier to change the things within our grasp (pp. 195-96).

Growth is a multistep process, but it is an actual process. Spiritual formation isn’t quite as slippery as some make it out to be. The first step is to crack ourselves open to see what we’re hiding, either deliberately or inadvertently, and to drag what is in the dark into the light. This is the process of self-discovery and self-awareness (p. 179).

My thoughts:

I was familiar with most of these frameworks. One I had never heard of and one I knew very little about – that one was my main purpose for picking up this book.

What I have read about personalities reinforces what Anne said about them. It can be very helpful and insightful to understand more about ourselves and about others with whom we interact. Reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain was a huge help to me. Even though I knew before reading it that I was an introvert, Cain’s book helped me understand myself, realize that introversion was not an abnormality or disability, find ways to cope when my circumstances aren’t ideal, and realize that I have to extend myself beyond my comfort zone sometimes.

I do think it’s possible to become obsessed with them, however. I’ve known people to read multiple books on one of these frameworks without being able to figure out their type exactly, and it’s a constant conversation point. It’s possible to spend too much time on introspection.

I’ve also seen some of these used the wrong way. Someone recently told me of a personality test given to employees where they worked. Those who scored high in areas that indicated leadership qualities were put into leadership – and failed abysmally, because there is more to being a good leader than a certain personality type. I’m sure Anne would agree that there are ways to interpret and use this information wrongly, as would the creators of these frameworks.

But I thought Anne did a great job summarizing the different personality frameworks and made a good case for studying and understanding our own personalities.

One last thought: Anne is a professing Christian and refers to spiritual issues naturally within the book, but this is not a Christian book per se. Her audience is the general public, not just Christians. There’s nothing wrong with that, but as a Christian reader, there would be layers I would add to the information she shares. For instance, to the last quote I mentioned about cracking ourselves open and bringing what’s in the darkness to light, I would add the necessity of asking God to search us. Also, as Christians we seek God’s help to change and grow.

Overall, a great book and one I am happy to recommend.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

Book Review: The Story of My Life by Helen Keller

Helen Keller Many people are familiar to some degree with Helen Keller’s story of being locked in a dark and silent existence until her teacher, Anne Sullivan, found a way to communicate with her. The first part of The Story of My Life is in Helen’s own words. The second part is made up of her letters, from the time she was a little girl to the time of the book’s publication, showing the growth and development of her ability to communicate. The final section of the book, “A Supplementary Account of Helen Keller’s Life and Education,” shares more information by the editor of the book, John Macy, and includes letters from Anne Sullivan.

Helen was only in her early twenties and a junior in college when she wrote her part of this book. She began with her birth in Alabama in 1880, her family background, and what she could remember of her home and early childhood. When she was nineteen months old, she came down with “acute congestion of the stomach and brain” (Wikipedia says it was likely scarlet fever or meningitis). She survived the illness but lost her sight and hearing. She made her will known by signs or acting out what she wanted, but there was still much she could not express. She could tell other people communicated differently, put her hand on their lips, and then got extremely angry and frustrated that she could not talk the way they did.

The desire to express myself grew. The few signs I used became less and less adequate, and my failures to make myself understood were invariably followed by outbursts of passion. I felt as if invisible hands were holding me, and I made frantic efforts to free myself. I struggled–not that struggling helped matters, but the spirit of resistance was strong within me; I generally broke down in tears and physical exhaustion. If my mother happened to be near I crept into her arms, too miserable even to remember the cause of the tempest. After awhile the need of some means of communication became so urgent that these outbursts occurred daily, sometimes hourly.

When Helen was six, her parents took her to a doctor in Baltimore, who referred them to Alexander Graham Bell, who suggested Michael Anagnos of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston. Mr. Agagnos sent them Anne Sullivan.

I felt approaching footsteps. I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Some one took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me.

Anne started spelling the names of objects with a manual alphabet with her fingers in Helen’s hands, and although Helen could mimic what Anne did, Helen didn’t make the connection that the letters spelled the names of the objects. Then came the famous incident in which Anne spelled “water” while Helen’s hand felt water pouring from a pump. Suddenly the light dawned and the connection was made, opening up the world of language and communication for Helen. It took a while, though, to go from learning nouns to making sentences and learning abstract concepts.

In her narrative in the book, Helen recounted her education, various incidents in her childhood, people she met, books she read. She was determined to go to college: “A potent force within me, stronger than the persuasion of my friends, stronger even than the pleadings of my heart, had impelled me to try my strength by the standards of those who see and hear. I knew that there were obstacles in the way; but I was eager to overcome them.” Anne went with her and spelled out the classroom lectures in Helen’s hand. Helen had to get textbooks printed in Braille. Different types of Braille caused difficulty in an examination where the raised print was different from what she was used to, yet Anne was not allowed to spell into Helen’s hand for the exam. She referred to “…those dreadful pitfalls called examinations, set by schools and colleges for the confusion of those who seek after knowledge.”

Despite the obstacles, Helen enjoyed learning in the midst of other students and interacting with them.

But I soon discovered that college was not quite the romantic lyceum I had imagined. Many of the dreams that had delighted my young inexperience became beautifully less and “faded into the light of common day.” Gradually I began to find that there were disadvantages in going to college.

The one I felt and still feel most is lack of time. I used to have time to think, to reflect, my mind and I. We would sit together of an evening and listen to the inner melodies of the spirit, which one hears only in leisure moments when the words of some loved poet touch a deep, sweet chord in the soul that until then had been silent. But in college, there is no time to commune with one’s thoughts. One goes to college to learn, it seems, not to think. When one enters the portals of learning, one leaves the dearest pleasures–solitude, books and imagination–outside with the whispering pines. I suppose I ought to find some comfort in the thought that I am laying up treasures for future enjoyment, but I am improvident enough to prefer present joy to hoarding riches against a rainy day.

Every one who wishes to gain true knowledge must climb the Hill Difficulty alone, and since there is no royal road to the summit, I must zigzag it in my own way. I slip back many times, I fall, I stand still, I run against the edge of hidden obstacles, I lose my temper and find it again and keep it better, I trudge on, I gain a little, I feel encouraged, I get more eager and climb higher and begin to see the widening horizon. Every struggle is a victory. One more effort and I reach the luminous cloud, the blue depths of the sky, the uplands of my desire.

But I do not blame any one. The administrative board of Radcliffe did not realize how difficult they were making my examinations, nor did they understand the peculiar difficulties I had to surmount. But if they unintentionally placed obstacles in my way, I have the consolation of knowing that I overcame them all.

She did indeed overcome the obstacles and earned her degree, the first blind and deaf student to do so.

I realize now what a selfish, greedy girl I was to ask that my cup of happiness should be filled to overflowing, without stopping to think how many other people’s cups were quite empty. I feel heartily ashamed of my thoughtlessness.

It is only once in a great while that I feel discontented, and allow myself to wish for things I cannot hope for in this life. But, as you know, my heart is usually brimful of happiness. The thought that my dear Heavenly Father is always near, giving me abundantly of all those things, which truly enrich life and make it sweet and beautiful, makes every deprivation seem of little moment compared with the countless blessings I enjoy.

I enjoyed reading Anne Sullivan’s side of things, too, and wish I could share several quotes about how her philosophy of educating Helen developed. Even though Anne herself had attended the Institute, she had to come up with her own methods on the spot to teach Helen. She determined to teach her in a natural and not a “classroom” way, at least until Helen learned to communicate well. Anne’s letters here were informally written to a lady at the Institute who was like a mother to her, and I am so glad these letters were included rather than formal reports: they reveal much of her heart.

It is a rare privilege to watch the birth, growth, and first feeble struggles of a living mind; this privilege is mine; and moreover, it is given me to rouse and guide this bright intelligence.

If only I were better fitted for the great task! I feel every day more and more inadequate. My mind is full of ideas; but I cannot get them into working shape. You see, my mind is undisciplined, full of skips and jumps, and here and there a lot of things huddled together in dark corners. How I long to put it in order! Oh, if only there were some one to help me! I need a teacher quite as much as Helen. I know that the education of this child will be the distinguishing event of my life, if I have the brains and perseverance to accomplish it.

One aspect of Helen’s education that I did not quite pick up on was how it became so public. A lot of that publicity seemed to come from Mr. Anagnos, but I don’t know if he was just excited about it or promoting the work of the Institute or what. Major frustrations for Anne were the exaggerations of Helen’s accomplishments or Anne’ abilities in the news, or the judgments of her methods by people who had no real idea of what was involved.

Mr. Macy, the book’s editor, spends a great deal of time on one blight of Helen’s career or education. Helen had written a story and sent it to Mr. Anagnos, who then had it printed in the newspapers. Alert readers wrote in to say that the story resembled one written by another author and accused Helen of plagiarism. Helen was only eleven at the time, and an investigation was made. Neither Anne nor Helen’s mother had read to Helen the story which she was accused of plagiarizing: they had not even heard of it. Finally the story was tracked down at a home Helen had visited some years before. Evidently someone there had read it to her, and she had forgotten the incident, but retained bits of the story in her own imagination. Included in this book is a letter from the author of the original story, saying that she did not believe Helen repeated the story as her own on purpose, and she thought Helen even improved upon her story in some places. She concluded:

Please give her my warm love, and tell her not to feel troubled about it any more. No one shall be allowed to think it was anything wrong; and some day she will write a great, beautiful story or poem that will make many people happy. Tell her there are a few bitter drops in every one’s cup, and the only way is to take the bitter patiently, and the sweet thankfully.

As a Christian, I enjoy learning about a person’s spiritual development. This post is already long, so I don’t feel I can share many of the quotes I have marked on this aspect, but I think Helen was greatly confused. Anne recorded that she tried to avoid the topic of religion as she felt unqualified to deal with it. Wikipedia records that Helen eventually followed someone who taught universalism.

I did not know until scanning the Wikipedia article on Helen that Anne married Mr. Macy, the editor, a couple of years after the book was published! I read a Kindle edition, but apparently the one I have is no longer available. There are various Kindle editions available, however. In the version I read, the formatting wasn’t done well: sometimes it was hard to tell when a quote from a letter ended and the editor’s words began. Some of the letters are indented, but many are not. I also just discovered that the book is online here and includes pictures that are not in my Kindle edition, including some samples of Helen’s writing. The original book was published in 1903: this particular edition was published in 2014, and I wish they had included an afterword about the rest of Helen’s life, but I had to peruse Wikipedia for that.

I had only known the bare basics of Helen’s early life, probably from the movie The Miracle Worker, and I very much enjoyed learning more about her and Anne.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved and Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

Book Review: Sins of the Past

Sins of the Past Sins of the Past is a collection of three “romantic suspense” novellas by Dee Henderson, Dani Pettrey, and Lynette Eason. The characters and stories are unrelated except that each main character’s current dilemma is a result of or related to something in his or her past.

In “Missing” by Dee Henderson, Wyoming police chief John Graham received word that his mother was missing from her retirement community in Chicago. He flew back to Chicago from Wyoming. Initial reports showed no foul play or evidence of a robbery or a sudden attack. John begins to fear that someone from his undercover days in Chicago is taking revenge on him through his mother. He works with Lieutenant Sharon Noble to find his mother and her kidnapper.

In “Shadowed” by Dani Pettrey, competitive open-water swimmer Libby Jennings goes for a pleasure ride to see dolphins when the skipper of the boat sees a dead body in the water. When they pull the body in, Libby finds it is one of her competitors, Kat. Kat was from Russia and the two women had had some conflicts in the past, but Libby hates to see Kat dead. Libby works with the local law enforcement of small town Yancey, Alaska, to find out what happened. Since this story takes place in the Cold War era, investigators suspect ties to Communist intrigue as well.

In “Blackout” by Lynette Eason, Macey Adams has been suffering from migraines and memory loss since a horrific accident several years earlier. But just when bits and pieces of her memory begin to return, she finds herself in danger. Her brother-in-law had died trying to help her regain her memories, so she closes herself off from others so as not to put anyone else in danger. But a police officer-neighbor comes to her aid when he hears her screaming after a home intrusion, and together they investigate who might be trying to do Macey harm and why.

My thoughts:

The draw for me in this book was Dee Henderson. Suspense and crime drama aren’t my first choice of book genres, but I discovered Dee years ago while looking for Christian fiction that my mom might be interested in, and I think I have read all of Dee’s books since then. I very much enjoyed her story, though I figured out the culprit early on. I was surprised as to the person’s motives, though. I had not read either of the other two authors before. There were a couple of odd sentences in Dani’s story (one example: “He looked her in the eye, the depth of his heart wading in them”) and a few too many “She looked at his lips, which she wished were pressing hers” kind of statements. There seemed to me to be a couple of illogical aspects in the last two stories (a civilian heavily involved in a murder investigation, someone who is being stalked taking out the garbage alone behind her building at work). But overall I did enjoy these stories, too. Lynette’s particularly started off right in the middle of a tense scene and drew me right in. I appreciated that the characters in the first two stories acted “Christianly” (to borrow Rebekah‘s word), yet in a natural way. There wasn’t much from a Christian nature in the third except for a couple of prayers or acknowledgments of God’s intervention.

If you like stories that are clean, Christian, and suspenseful, you might like these books. One advantage of novella collections is the opportunity to sample writing from a few different authors.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carole’s Books You Loved, Literary Musing Monday)

What’s On Your Nightstand: March 2018

Nightstand82The folks at 5 Minutes For Books host What’s On Your Nightstand the last Tuesday of each month in which we can share about the books we have been reading and/or plan to read.

March has certainly been a mixed month weather-wise and event-wise. But it’s nice to make time for reading here and there.

Since last time I have completed:

Trust: A Godly Woman’s Adornment by Lydia Brownback, reviewed here. Excellent.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, reviewed here. This may be my biggest surprise book of the year! It’s quite good, and different from the movies.

Little Blog on the Prairie by Cathleen Davitt Bell, about a modern family with problems going to a “Camp Frontier.” Reviewed here.

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, reviewed here. Excellent.

I’m currently reading:

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller

Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

Sins of the Past by Dee Henderson, Dani Pettrey, and Lynette Eason

Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything by Anne Bogel

Up Next:

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

He Fell in Love With His Wife by Edward Payson Roe

Going Like Sixty by Richard Armour

Another Way Home by Deborah Raney

How about you? Read any good books lately?

 

Book Review: Where the Red Fern Grows

Red FernI had seen the 1974 film version of Where the Red Fern Grows when my two older boys were elementary-school age, some 25 or so years ago. I enjoyed the film, but I don’t remember if I knew then it was based on a book. I wish we had read it back then! But I was glad to finally listen to it via audiobook this month.

The book begins with an adult Billy Coleman leaving work and coming upon a dogfight. When he sees the dog being attacked is a hound like one he used to have, he rescues it, takes it home, feeds it, and lets it rest, then releases it. That stirs up memories of the dogs he used to have.

Billy had grown up in a poor family in the Ozarks. There was nothing he wanted more than a dog to go coon hunting with – but not just any dog. He wanted hounds. His parents could have gotten him a mongrel dog, but they could not afford a special breed, no matter how much Billy pleaded.

I suppose there’s a time in practically every young boy’s life when he’s affected by that wonderful disease of puppy love. I don’t mean the kind a boy has for the pretty little girl that lives down the road. I mean the real kind, the kind that has four small feet and a wiggly tail, and sharp little teeth that can gnaw on a boy’s finger; the kind a boy can romp and play with, even eat and sleep with.

One day Billy found a magazine some hunters had left behind at their campground and found an ad for two Redbone Coonhounds for $50. Without telling anyone, he performed odd jobs, dug up and sold worms for bait, picked and sold blackberries, and did anything he could think of to earn money. It took him two years, and when he finally showed his savings to his grandfather and told him what they were for, his grandpa helped him order the dogs. But the dogs would be shipped to a town more than a day’s journey away. Billy took off on foot alone to pick up his dogs and bring them back, helped by a kindly station master.

The dogs were a brother and sister. Billy named the brother, who was strong and quick to react, Old Dan. The thoughtful, intelligent girl dog was named Little Ann.

Billy went to work training his dogs to hunt coons, selling coon hides and giving the money to his father, and having many adventures with his dogs. Tragedy struck a couple of times, the second occurrence shaking Billy’s faith.

This is a wonderful “boy and his dogs” and coming of age story, even if readers are not all that interested in hunting. Strong themes of loyalty, perseverance, family, and faith undergird the novel. There are a couple of gruesome parts (one boy has a hunting accident with an ax, a dog in a fight with a mountain lion is severely injured), and the author tells them realistically but not gratuitously. The ending is sad but ultimately hopeful.

People have been trying to understand dogs ever since the beginning of time. One never knows what they’ll do. You can read every day where a dog saved the life of a drowning child, or lay down his life for his master. Some people call this loyalty. I don’t. I may be wrong, but I call it love-the deepest kind of love.

Wikipedia shares the interesting background story of how Wilson Rawls wrote the story, destroyed his manuscript, then wrote it again at his wife’s urging. I also enjoyed reading 12 Things You Might Not Know About Where the Red Fern Grows. Though Rawls wrote for children, his first publisher oddly marketed the book to adults. Sales were slow until Rawls spoke at a conference for teachers and librarians who took the samples of his book back to their schools and libraries, where children loved it.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Anthony Heald. I didn’t know until just now that there was a 2003 remake of the movie. Some day I would like to see it.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Frankenstein

I had always associated Frankenstein by Mary Shelley with the black and white horror movies of my childhood. Since I don’t really care for horror movies, I never had an interest in reading it. But in recent years I’ve heard several people say that the book is different from the movies, that the movies provide more of a caricature than a reflection of the story. So I decided to give the book a try.

I was quite surprised! While I would never call Frankenstein nor this type of book a favorite, the story was much more compelling than I originally thought it would be. It was conceived as a result of a gathering with Mary, her lover Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and others, when they were telling ghost stories and decided to see who could write the best scary story. Mary started this story when she was 18 and it was published anonymously when she was 20. Later editions featured her name as the author.

Frankenstein is often erroneously thought to be the monster’s name: it’s actually the name of the creator. The monster is never named.

The story actually begins with a Captain Robert Walton on a voyage writing home to his sister. He has a thirst for knowledge, a penchant for the “marvelous,” a desire to accomplish something great, and a longing for a true like-minded friend. While in an icy region Walton’s crew spies a gigantic creature driving a sledge guided by dogs across the ice. The next day they come across a man “in wretched condition” on another sledge on an ice floe. The crew brings the man onto the boat and Walton tries to help him. As they talk, the man, who introduces himself as Victor Frankenstein, recognizes in Walton the same ambition and thirst for knowledge that he’d had, so Frankenstein tells Walton his story as a warning.

Victor’s story is recorded in his own words. He had been raised by a good family  in Geneva and had an interest in the sciences. Early in his life he had come across books on alchemy (not the study of turning metals into gold, but “finding a universal solvent and an elixir of life.” according to Dictionary.com). His university studies increased his knowledge to the point that he discovered “the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.”

With feverish excitement he decided to test this knowledge, assembling a new being from body parts of corpses he had been studying. But once the creature was made alive, Victor was repulsed and horrified.

The monster escaped and Victor fell ill. When Victor finally got better, he learned that his younger brother had been murdered, so he went home. While walking alone, Victor saw the monster and felt immediately that the monster was responsible for the murder.

In a later confrontation, the monster told Victor his own story of becoming aware, learning about himself and his world, and being met by fear and hatred from other people. He finally found an abandoned building where he could take shelter. The building was close enough to a small family that he could see their interactions, hear them, and learn from them. He grew to care for them and even did them little favors like chopping wood and setting it beside their cottage. He felt if he could introduce himself to the old, blind father and gain his sympathy, then the father could smooth the monster’s way with the rest of the family, and the creature would finally have someone to love and belong to. But that plan went awry and resulted in the monster’s being driven away.

So the monster found Victor, requested that he make a female monster, and promised that he and his mate would go away and not bother anyone. If Victor refused, the monster would take vengeance on all whom Victor loved. Victor vacillated: he was loathe to make another such creature, but if he did, he would be rid of them. But what if the female refused to go away quietly, and the two monsters wreaked havoc on the rest of the country?

I’ll leave the rest to you to discover what happened. I think my favorite section was the monster’s narrative of being nearly a blank slate and discovering his own impulses, like hunger, learning how to take care of what he needed, having a kindly attitude toward nature and mankind, feeling hurt by rejection which finally boiled over into hatred.

I was surprised to find that Victor was not a scientist as I had always thought, but a student. That explains a little bit why he didn’t have the maturity to think through his actions or to take responsibility for the monster.

Throughout the book both Victor and the monster take refuge in the beauty of nature. That’s not unusual in itself, but it is mentioned so often that I think it has to be Shelley’s contrast between the goodness of the natural and the evil of the unnatural. The fact that the final scenes take place in an icy, barren, dangerous area seems to indicate that both Victor and the monster had progressed far past the comforts of the beautiful, good, and natural.

Writing a scary story may have been Mary’s only purpose. But she may have been commentating on the dangers of pushing the boundaries of the technology of the day and the foolishness of judging by outward appearance. The original subtitle was The Modern Prometheus: in mythology, Prometheus formed humans out of clay, gave them life, and gave them fire though Zeus had forbidden it. For punishment Zeus had Prometheus chained to a rock where an eagle ate his liver: since he was immortal, every day the liver regrew and the eagle ate it again.

A new edition was published in 1831 with a new preface. Schmoop says, “Shelley wasn’t the same bright-eyed 21 year old she’d been in 1818. By 1831, she had lost her husband and two of her children, and the revised edition has a grimmer tone. In the 1831 text, nature is a destructive machine; Victor is a victim of fate, not free will…” This is the version most people are familiar with.

I had a hard time choosing between the audiobooks read by Dan Stevens (Matthew of Downton Abbey) or Derek Jacobi. I finally went with Jacobi’s narration, because I had listened to audiobooks wonderfully read by him before, and he did a superb job with this. I don’t know that I will ever read or listen to this story again, but if I do I’d like to try out Steven’s version just to hear how he handled it. The text is also available here.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge 2018 Winner

Congratulations to Rebekah for winning the Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge this year! Thanks to all of those who participated. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did! I already have plans for next year!