Book Review: Unlimited

Unlimited by Davis Bunn starts off with a bang: Simon Orwell has just had an accident on a hot dusty road in Mexico. He is carrying some sort of apparatus with him. something highly valued, though damaged, and he’s escaping from the man who deliberately caused the accident.

He had been on his way to see his former MIT professor with whom he had helped work on the apparatus. But when he finally makes his way to a safe place, he learns not only that the professor has been killed, but the emails from him were sent after his death.

Simon ends up hiding out at an orphanage run by the professor’s dear friends. Some of those friends see Simon as a danger who needs to leave ASAP. Others, particularly the orphanage director, Harold, see Simon first as a desperate soul in need of help, and secondly as the man who could finish the professor’s research.

Simon had come for only one reason: to apologize to the professor for a former betrayal. Wracked with uneased guilt, with no confidence in his own potential, Simon is at loose ends. But when Harold shows him some of the professor’s further research on the device, a source of free energy, Simon begins to tinker with it and then to believe he can fix it. While Harold is thrilled, he is more concerned with the weight on Simon’s soul and his reclamation.

There are others, though – some lurking in darkness, like the man who caused the car accident, and others lurking behind fake smiles and assurances, who want the apparatus for far different reasons.

Bunn does an excellent job keeping the reader in suspense throughout the book on several fronts: whether the apparatus can be fixed and made to work as intended, whether the wrong people will get their hands on it and hurt people in the process, and whether Simon will respond to the truth Harold is sharing with him and living out before him.

Parts of the story are true, especially the fact that Harold is a real person, a former NASA engineer, who retired to establish orphanages in India and to lecture on principles of success. Honestly, what I read about the latter online, that “internal powerful forces that can propel [people] from ordinary to extraordinary…You can begin now to illuminate your path to future unlimited greatness and Dr. Finch wants to show you how” made me a little uncomfortable and wary. What was presented in Unlimited was fine but I wouldn’t endorse the rest of his teaching without knowing more about it.

This book was made after the 2015 movie of it, rather than the movie being made after the book as is usually the case. I had not heard of the movie and couldn’t find it in any of the usual rental places. I did look it up on Pureflix and found it there – we aren’t members, but it may be worth a trial membership to see it.

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

Book Review: All Things New

All Things New by Lynn Austin takes place at the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, one of the most difficult periods in American history.

Virginians Josephine Weatherly and her mother, Eugenia, and sister Mary have lost their father, oldest brother, and many of their possessions to the war. Their other brother, Daniel, finally comes home but is a broken man. Living for so long with famine, fear, and unanswered prayers, Josephine has lost her faith as well.

As the South tries to recover from the war, various attitudes clash. Some, like Eugenia, want to restore everything to the way it once was and have difficulty treating the former slaves as employees. Some, like Daniel, become bitter and want revenge and control through violence. Josephine is in a fog for a long time, but eventually she sees that things must change. Bored with her listless life and empty time, she begins helping one of their two remaining servants in the garden, much to her mother’s shock and dismay. But Josephine finds that she enjoys doing something useful. She also begins to see the servant, Lizzie, as a real person and learns more about the family she hadn’t even known Lizzie had.

A federal agent is sent to help the freed slaves find positions, start a school for their children, and help negotiate contracts between the former slaves and masters as employee and employer. The former slaves are grateful for his aid, but he is not trusted by the white people because he is a Yankee and still regarded as an enemy. When Josephine runs into him accidentally, at first she is appalled, but as she gets to know him, she finds him and his views thought-provoking and reasonable.

Among the views that need changing are not only those involving slaves and masters, but those involving what it means to be privileged. As Josephine shocks and angers her mother by further activities outside the bounds of what privileged young ladies are supposed to do, Josephine finds new purpose and meaning. And gradually her heart begins to open to the idea that it needs freedom as well.

Here are some of the quotes that stood out to me:

Eugenia hated seeing her daughter stray so far from her aristocratic upbringing to labor like a common woman, even though her hard work was saving all of them.

Jo fought to control her temper, to be the dutiful daughter. She was walking the same narrow path that Dr. Hunter was, her conscience telling her one thing, her sense of duty and her ingrained respect for her mother telling her something else.

“Even after the war, Eugenia, do you still put people into categories the way you were taught to do—rich and poor, socially acceptable and not, black and white?”

“I haven’t placed them there. Life has.”

“But people are all the same in God’s eyes, don’t you think? Or do you believe there will be segregated divisions in heaven like the ones we’ve created here on earth?”

I think you’ll find our children’s values will be different from ours. They’ll see that slavery was wrong and that it had to end. They’ve seen the futility of war. They’re learning to live without wealth and privilege. I would hope our sons and daughters would also learn to look for other qualities in each other besides money and social position.

We have to lead by example. Our generation has to make peace with the Negroes and with the Yankees. We have to show our sons and daughters that the old South was destroyed because it was flawed and that we’re willing to embrace the changes. It will only lead to more suffering if we don’t. We can show our children that many of the changes are good. . . . It begins with us—you and me.

Pride. We began to believe that we were little gods, expanding our empires, living well at the expense of an entire race of people. The Almighty finally had enough and showed us we were only human after all, that we would bleed and die from cannonballs and bullets. He reduced us to the same poverty and helplessness that we inflicted on the Negroes—but some of us just haven’t learned that lesson yet.

The war has exposed our false beliefs and the moral rot that accompanied slavery. All of our prideful decisions and the shameful way we treated the Negroes have been exposed. We were flawed, Eugenia. God said so. It’s time to let go of our old attitudes and rebuild the South with compassion for others and with the belief that’s at the core of our Constitution—that all men are created equal. And it’s up to us to lead by example.

I grew up in southern TX, where we considered ourselves Southerners, but it didn’t really come up much unless someone with a Northern accent was around. It wasn’t until I moved to SC that I met people passionate about being Southern and speaking haughtily about “The War of Northern Aggression.” Students of the Civil War are quick to point out that it wasn’t just about slavery, that there were other issues involved as well. But as John Newton said to Hannah More in a letter concerning their fight against slavery in England:

I think this infamous traffic cannot last long; at least that is my hope…should it still be persevered in, I think it will constitute a national sin, and of a very deep die…I should tremble for the consequences; for, whatever politicians may think, I assuredly know there is a righteous judge who governs the earth. He calls upon us to redress the injured, and should we perversely refuse, I cannot doubt but he will plead his cause himself (as quoted in Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More by Karen Swallow Prior).

I don’t know why it took so long for people to recognize the wrongs of slavery. Ruffled feathers against “Yankees” and “The War of Northern Aggression” aren’t cute any more. Change of heart has been slow in coming, and it’s much better than it was in this era, but there is still a long, long way to go to repent of deep-seated prejudices in this country. I’ve lived in the South all my adult life, in SC, GA, and now TN, and I love it dearly, but we still need to grow.

I thought this book was very well done showing the difficulties of this era on all sides without simplistic platitudes pasted on like band-aids. And beyond the overarching themes and settings, the stories of the individual characters were well-drawn. Highly recommended.

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

Save

Save

Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

I’ve been wanting to read The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy ever since I saw it referred to in Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.

It begins with Ivan’s colleagues receiving news of his death. While some of express regret, most of them are glad that they weren’t the ones who died and concentrate on the opening of position to replace him and the “very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.” Even at the funeral, they are more concerned with the propriety of what to say and do and escaping to a bridge game afterward than with expressing genuine sorrow to the widow. Even Ivan’s wife, Praskovya Fedorovna, seems primarily concerned with how Ivan’s last sufferings affected her and how she can get more money from the government. Only Ivan’s son seems genuinely sorrowful.

The next chapters detail Ivan’s life. He was the middle son, “neither as cold and formal as his elder brother nor as wild as the younger, but was a happy mean between them—an intelligent polished, lively and agreeable man.” He attended law school and rose up the ranks of a law career. “Neither as a boy nor as a man was he a toady, but from early youth was by nature attracted to people of high station as a fly is drawn to the light, assimilating their ways and views of life and establishing friendly relations with them.”

At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them.

He had not planned to marry, but when he met Praskovya Fedorovna, she was reasonably attractive and had a little property, and a good marriage was part of a respectable lifestyle, so he married. He strove for a life that was “easy, agreeable, gay and always decorous.” That word decorous comes up often.

Things went well until his wife became pregnant and, evidently hormonal, she began demanding more of his time and became very jealous, introducing “something new, unpleasant, depressing, and unseemly, and from which there was no way of escape.” He handled it by ignoring it, spending more time with his friends or at work.

At one point, during a particularly happy phase of life, he had a fall and injured his side. It seemed minor at the time, but it did not heal. The pain increased, became more constant, he developed a bad taste in his mouth. He sought various doctors, but they all had different diagnoses.

As he gradually grew worse, he began to think he might die. At first he refused to believe it. But as his condition worsened, he cried out to God wondering why this was happening to him. Eventually he began to wonder if this was all because he had not lived a good life…but of course he had lived a good life, he thought, so that must not be it.

As he realizes that he is in fact dying, he simmers with rage over the reactions of everyone else.

[The doctor] comes in fresh, hearty, plump, and cheerful, with that look on his face that seems to say: “There now, you’re in a panic about something, but we’ll arrange it all for you directly!” The doctor knows this expression is out of place here, but he has put it on once for all and can’t take it off.

Just as the doctor had adopted a certain relation to his patient which he could not abandon, so had [his wife] formed one towards him—that he was not doing something he ought to do and was himself to blame, and that she reproached him lovingly for this—and she could not now change that attitude.

His daughter was “impatient with illness, suffering, and death, because they interfered with her happiness.”

Ivan just wants someone to be honest, to be real, to admit that he’s dying, and to empathize with him.

The awful, terrible act of his dying was, he could see, reduced by those about him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident (as if someone entered a drawing room defusing an unpleasant odour) and this was done by that very decorum which he had served all his life long.

The only person who seems comfortable with Ivan and his condition is the butler’s assistant, Gerasim, “clean, fresh peasant lad, grown stout on town food and always cheerful and bright.” It was Gerasim’s job to take care of Ivan’s “excretions,” which terribly embarrassed Ivan, but Gerasim did his work in such a cheerful way that it comforted Ivan, and, when Ivan apologized, Gerasim continually said, “What’s a little trouble?”

Gerasim alone did not lie; everything showed that he alone understood the facts of the case and did not consider it necessary to disguise them, but simply felt sorry for his emaciated and enfeebled master. Once when Ivan Ilych was sending him away he even said straight out:”We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?” —expressing the fact that he did not think his work burdensome, because he was doing it for a dying man and hoped someone would do the same for him when his time came.

Ivan began relying on Gerasim more and more. His pain was most alleviated when Gerasim held Ivan’s legs on Gerasim’s shoulders, and he uncomplainingly supported him like that through the night.

As Ivan’s continues to deteriorate, he begins to question if perhaps he had not really lived a good life at all. The things which used to bring him happiness now seemed shallow and unimportant.

This might sound like a terribly depressing story. It’s sad, but it’s enlightening and moving at the same time. One of Atul Gawande’s points in his book was that we’ve become far removed from death. In former times, life spans were shorter, an agricultural society dealt with death of animals frequently, plagues happened more frequently, and people died at home rather than in hospitals. While we have much to be grateful for in the strides in health care that have been made throughout history, Gawande is right in that we have become so distanced from death that we don’t know how to handle it, are often surprised to face it, avoid dealing with it, and don’t know what to say to someone who is dying. Tolstoy’s book illustrates this abundantly.

I think Ivan’s progression of spirit was well told. I’m thankful to Sparknotes for pointing out that the time progression of the book slowed down from covering several years of Ivan’s life, then a few weeks, then days, then his final moments, and his world shrunk progressively as well from a “man about town” to the confines of his room and then his sofa.

I think in some cases God allows a slow progression of death like this because that’s the only time some people would stop long enough to consider their ways and think about death and whether they’re ready for it. Tolstoy wrote this after a crisis of faith in which he wrestled with what the meaning of life was, and that is reflected in Ivan’s wrestlings as well. From what I understand, Tolstoy ended up with kind of an amalgam of beliefs, but Christian principles undergird the narrative here.

In some ways Ivan reaped what he sowed. He didn’t take time to understand his wife’s concerns in their early marriage, and she responded in the same way when he was dying – not on purpose or for vengeance, but she was just as out of touch as he had been earlier. There are almost parallel sections in how he treated people ion his career and how doctors treated him. But he does come to realize and acknowledge this over time.

Gersasim is a breath of fresh air in the novel. His empathy, balance between cheerfulness and sympathy, willingness to do whatever needed to be done to help, all make the reader hope for a friend like him when our own time comes.

I appreciated Schmoop‘s conclusions in their “Why should I care?” section. They can be pretty irreverent at times, but I thought they were spot on here:

The Death of Ivan Ilych brings to our attention the unpleasant fact that we all have to die, and that we might have to suffer a whole lot first. Our medicines might be better than those of Ivan’s doctors, but we haven’t gotten any closer to escaping mortality, and many people still die only after a long and painful period of disease. Perhaps Ivan Ilych, which is famous for its psychological depth, will help you understand what many people go through when they’re dying.

Perhaps Ivan Ilych will also get you thinking about what mortality means for you. Like Ivan, you might start wondering how you should live your life, and how you can find meaning in it.

I listened to the audiobook marvelously read by Oliver Ford Davies. Not only was the narration done well, but particularly Ivan’s voice and the changes over the course of his illness were masterfully portrayed. The text of the novella is here.

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

Save

Book Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

39 stepsThe Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan opens with thirty-seven-year-old Scotchman Richard Hannay bored with life in London in May of 1914. He had been a mining engineer in Rhodesia and came to England, but has no friends and nothing to do. He’s on the verge of finding something else to do with his life when he’s accosted at his door by an American from a neighboring flat pleading for his help.

He lets the man in, a Franklin Scudder, who tells him what seems a fantastic tale at first. Scudder has just faked his own death. He’s sort of a free-lance spy who had come upon a secret on international intrigue, a plot to kill the Greek premier, Karolides, when he comes to England, which will set off a series of negative political repercussions. When Hannay suggests Karolides can be warned not to come, Scudder objects that Karolides is needed for the meetings he is to attend. What Scudder wants to do is hide out in Hannay’s flat until June 15, when he can get to the appropriate authorities.

At first Hannay thinks Scudder must be insane, but the more he talks, especially when he brings up Karolides, whom Hannay had just been reading about, Hannay believes him and agrees to let him stay. Meanwhile Scudder changes disguises to look like a British officer.

Hannay enjoys having the company for several days and notices Scudder scribbling in a notebook from time to time. When Hannay has to go out for a meeting, he comes home to find Scudder stabbed to death in his flat.

And that’s just the first chapter.

Shocked and disconcerted, Hannay investigates his flat for clues and considers whether to call the police. No one knows him in London, and he knew little enough about Scudder to make the whole situation seem fishy, concluding that he would probably be suspected for the murder. It was three weeks until the June 15th meeting, and Hannay decides to take Scudder’s notebook and take on his task.When he leaves his flat he notices a face in a neighboring window watching him.

On the run both from the police and the men who were after Scudder, Hannay’s journey takes him into all sorts of places and situations.

I liked that Hannay is presented as a fairly ordinary man. He has a few talents that come in handy, but in general he’s just a “regular chap” trying to do what he thinks is the right thing. He says he is “no Sherlock Holmes,” but he uses his wits and powers of deduction a fair bit.

I am an ordinary sort of fellow, not braver than other people, but I hate to see a good man downed, and that long knife would not be the end of Scudder if I could play the game in his place.

All this was very loose guessing, and I don’t pretend it was ingenious or scientific. I wasn’t any kind of Sherlock Holmes. But I have always fancied I had a kind of instinct about questions like this. I don’t know if I can explain myself, but I used to use my brains as far as they went, and after they came to a blank wall I guessed, and I usually found my guesses pretty right.

The writing grabbed me early on and held me throughout the book. Hannay got into various scrapes, building up the suspense of how he would get himself out of them, whether he’d make it to the authorities he needed to in time, whether he’d get in to see them, whether they’d believe him. The suspense lasted right up to the last page. After I finished the book I went back over some of the political stuff to get a better grasp of it,  but even without that I had picked up enough to follow and enjoy the story. I also loved the Britishness of it and Hannay’s way of expressing himself.

Buchan wrote this while he was recovering from an ulcer. One day while visiting him where he was convalescing, his daughter counted 39 steps in the building, and Buchan decided to use that as a vital clue in the book. He wanted to write a “‘shocker’…where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.” It’s one of the first “man on the run” type stories. He went on to write four more Hannay novels. This book was made into several films, one of them by Alfred Hitchcock, which I planned to look up until I read that all the films varied greatly from the book.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Robert Powell and read a number of sections in the Kindle version. I’d gotten the Kindle version on sale some time ago, but Hope’s review encouraged me to move this up on my TBR list. I quite enjoyed the story!

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

Save

Save

What’s On Your Nightstand: July 2017

What's On Your Nightstand

The 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.

Even though there is still nearly a week left in July, it’s the last Tuesday and therefore time to look over what we have been and will be reading.

Since last time I have completed:

Classics:

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, reviewed here. I was glad to conquer this one.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, reviewed here. Loved this – much food for thought.

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, reviewed here. This one will always hold a special place in my heart.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, review coming soon. I enjoyed this suspenseful tale, one of the first “man on the run” stories, very much.

Nonfiction:

Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More  – Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior, reviewed here. A remarkable woman: very good book.

Songs of a Housewife: Poems by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (author of the beloved The Yearling), edited by Rodger L. Tarr, reviewed here. I loved much of this.

Finishing Our Course with Joy: Guidance from God for Engaging with Our Aging by J. I. Packer, reviewed here. Great advice.

Christian or Inspirational Fiction:

A Proper Pursuit by Lynn Austin, reviewed here. A young woman in the late 1800s goes in search of the mother who left the family and finds an assortment of various types of femininity in her grandmother and great aunts. Good.

Until We Reach Home by Lynn Austin, reviewed here. Three Swedish sisters immigrate to America in 1897, meet and overcome hardships, and look for a true home. Very good.

All She Ever Wanted by Lynn Austin, reviewed here. A woman in conflict with her teenage daughter takes her on a road trip where she discloses the dysfunctional past she had kept hidden plus learns things she never knew about her own mother and granddaughter. Good.

Now, that’s not as much as it looks like. Two of the books were just short of finished last time, so they belong more to June than July. I’ve been working through an audiobook of Don Quixote for weeks, and the other classics here were very short audiobooks (3-4 hours each).  And Finishing Our Course With Joy was fairly short as well.

You also may have noticed a Lynn Austin trend. 🙂 I have so many books in my Kindle app from various sales that sometimes it’s hard to scroll through and decide what to read next. I decided to choose an author and read all of her book that I had, and chose Lynn because I have enjoyed others of her books. It’s been interesting to read several books from one author in a row like that.

I’m currently reading:

The Death of Ivan Ilych by LeoTolstoy. Very nearly finished with this one. Very moving.

Unlimited by Davis Bunn. Edge of your seat goodness!

All Things New by Lynn Austin

Lessons I Learned From My Grandchildren by Delia Halverson. I am about ready to toss this one, but it’s so short I figure I may as well finish it. Weak theology in places, faulty in others. Disappointing and not recommended.

Up Next:

The Illusionist’s Apprentice by Kristy Cambron

The Story Keeper by Lisa Wingate

Threads of Suspicion by Dee Henderson

Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy

Taking God At His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me by Kevin DeYoung

Each of the last few years I’ve been reading one book by Dickens that I have not read before. I was planning on The Pickwick Papers, but I am not terribly excited about that one. I may go with Hard Times or The Mystery of Edwin Drood instead. Have you read Pickwick?

Whew! I think that’s the longest Nightstand post I’ve ever done.

I am having a procedure next week – more on that tomorrow – and one thing I am looking forward to, besides getting it over with, is spending the recuperating time reading.

What are you reading?

Book Review: All She Ever Wanted

All She Ever WantedAll She Ever Wanted by Lynn Austin opens with a stressed-out Kathleen Seymour. She’s just lost her job, and her daughter, who has always been given everything she ever wanted, has been caught shoplifting. Advised by a counselor to try to connect better with her daughter, Kathleen decides they should go on a road trip back to where she grew up, where she has not been for thirty-five years.

On the way, Kathleen opens up about her own dysfunctional, poverty-stricken childhood that she had kept carefully hidden, with a thief for a father, a mother with little energy and interest, and a Communist uncle.

Conversations with friends and relatives along the way also reveal to Kathleen much she didn’t know about her own mother and grandmother’s lives. Each woman had left home trying to escape her family or situation, each faced stumblingblocks and sorrows, and each made mistakes with her own children. Will they ever find “all they ever wanted,” or are their sins past forgiveness?

My thoughts:

Truly each person has hidden sorrows and struggles, and we need to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). And, truly, God’s forgiveness is available to all who will accept it and believe in His Son, Jesus. And, truly, we all have enough of our own sins and foibles to deal with that should keep us from judging each other. And we all need to seek God’s will for our lives rather than navigating them on our own and making a mess of things. I was thankful for those emphases throughout the book.

Some readers would want to know that one of the women fell into extramarital sex, but nothing is explicit, and that does happen. It’s a believable part of the story, not there just for titillation.

Though it’s a good story, it’s not my favorite from Lynn. I’m having a hard time putting my finger on exactly why. It was a little disjointed with the back-and-forth timelines between the women. The next to last chapter, while good, and resolved in the ways I would have hoped, yet containing some surprises, seemed just a little too…pat, maybe. There were a couple of places I disagreed with the theology a bit. But none of these were big enough that I wouldn’t recommend the book, and I especially liked the last chapter.

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

Save

Laudable Linkage

IMG_0195
I don’t usually do these three weeks in a row, but I have come across a lot of good reading lately!

An Army Without Supplies. The people on the “front lines” – of either military or spiritual endeavors – are needed, but so is the support system behind them.

Instant Coffee, Instant Faith. “It is not the massive floods that cause a tree to grow; it’s the steady stream of water day after day, month after month, year after year. The Christian life does not consist only of great breakthroughs; it consists mainly in mundane, steady obedience.”

A Blog on Worship, HT to Proclaim and Defend. “Worship God, not just with your voice, but with your obedience, your devotion, your service, your time, your resources, your priorities, your thoughts, and your actions. Jesus bought all of you, so worship with all of you. Worship: It’s more than you think.

What Does Forgiveness Look Like?

How We Misunderstand Strong Women, HT to True Woman.

When the Words of My Mouth Are Pleasing Mostly to Me, HT to True Woman.

I Had an Abortion, HT to True Woman. Counsel to someone who has lost hope of forgiveness.

If You Like Narnia….suggestions for other books in a similar vein.

And finally, I saw this on Pinterest but couldn’t get to where it originated from. But it hit home – I have a tendency to over think things.

Overthinking

Have a great weekend!