From the Shelf: A Deceased Author

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When I chose this title I expected the demure memoir of wartime service, perhaps written by an old lady in pink and white, smelling of peppermints. A few pages in, I realized that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Vera Brittain was a teenager when The Great War broke out, interrupting her first year at Oxford, a budding romance and idealism born of her Victorian upbringing. She soon left university and began nursing, a career that took her to London, Malta and eventually frontline duty in France.

This memoir details war time tragedy (her fianc√© and brother were both killed in action) and more broadly, her growth from girl to self-possessed, independent woman. Her descriptions of wartime exhaustion are vivid and sobering. She doesn’t mince words to spare feelings, especially when it comes to her criticism of the powers that be – either God or government.

Brittain’s voice is tough and opinionated. With nothing good to say about her upbringing, she comes back again and again to how innocent and vulnerable her generation were to a ‘patriotic’ war, where heroic glory seemed a fair trade for sacrificed youth. Her story is undergirded with a tireless appeal for feminism, career, productivity, progress and peace – heartbreaking to think about in context of WWII, already on the horizon as she wrote.

She is not the women I imagined publishing a book in 1933 and this is not a simple little memoir. I read the last page feeling as if I’d known a whole and flawed person, however, something that doubtlessly took courage and care to write. For that, if nothing else, Vera Brittain has my respect.

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From the Shelf: A Novel

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A novel indeed! This book is Tess of the d’Urbervilles¬†on Canadian soil. The slow grinding, frustrating, pain in the butt (but you can’t stop reading) – novel a la mode. The story line that you can’t quite recall, but boy do you remember the gorgeous, haunting atmosphere!

Published in 1925, it’s the story of a Swedish immigrant Niels, on the fertile prairies. Frustrated in his love of choice, he innocently and rashly chooses the local “fancy lady” instead. As his farm prospers and grows, his personal life deteriorates at an alarming speed.

What strikes me the most when I think back on this book is the deep silence that it’s wrapped in. Niels himself is a man of few words, hopelessly confused by the waters of personal relationships. His first love stands aloof like the original ice maiden. His defunct marriage becomes literally, a quiet contest. And over it all is the wild, rolling, empty sloughs of the Canadian west.

I mentioned before that it’s the atmosphere, not the plot that recommends this book. I know that seems like a literary risk to take, and I suppose it is. It’s one worth reading however and I’m glad I did.

 

 

From the Shelf: A Biography

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When I was young, I thought biographies were the lowest of book life forms. I was also convinced that anyone saying otherwise, could only be pretending.

Knowing what I know now, however, I think that it was only the kind of biographies I encountered as a child. They were facts, birth and death, with only a hat tip to the legacy of each individual.

Martin Luther is different. It brings new perspective and historical context to the worn out facts of the Reformer’s life. Metaxas explains the importance of certain decisions Luther made, the why’s behind each battle chosen, and even offers greater understanding into subjects we might scratch our head about – “why did Luther care so much about this?”

This biography also does an excellent job of humanizing Luther. Far from a dry historical figure, we can glimpse into his lively private life and family affairs. In fact, one of my favourite quotes comes from Luther’s reflections on the death of his daughter. He writes:

“The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. I love her very much…in the last thousand years God has given to no bishop such great gifts as God has given me (for one should boast of God’s gifts). I am angry with myself that I am unable to rejoice from my heart and be thankful to God, though I do at times sing a little song and give thanks. Whether we live or die, we belong to God.”

My only gripe is that Metaxas seemed too reluctant to criticize Martin Luther. This was especially surprising in chapters on the later years, when Luther could well be critiqued for certain statements, regardless of the time and place. If Luther is real enough to empathize with, than he is real enough to have flaws!

All this aside, Martin Luther is the type of biography that is turning me into a lover of the genre these days.

My Mom and Dad would be proud of me.

From the Shelf: Over 100 Years Old

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Confession first. I read this book because it conveniently fit with my class curriculum this year. Students and I will be discussing it in a few weeks and I always like to re-read the material in preparation.

Otherwise I wouldn’t have looked at The Prince, twice. In so many ways, it is the stereotype for everyone’s negative feelings about the classics. Obscure, difficult to slog through, out of touch and complicated. Its positive attribute is the short length.

My brother-in-law was visiting while I courageously journeyed through this book to the library deadline. He loves The Prince so I picked his brain, and I do think from reading it I learned one important lesson.

Historical context will save any classic from becoming mind mush. Having just finished Metaxas’ biography on Martin Luther I had a much better understanding of the tumultuous time Nicholas Machiavelli lived. There was papal struggle, humanism, reformation and politics, politics, politics.

In fact, when you take a step back and see all the turmo

il that churn around the pages – it’s not so very boring after all.

I have to read The Scarlet Letter in a month or two. I could wait and review it in this same category if I was worried about word count on here. But I suspect my take away from it would be much the same.

Read the old books, because in understanding the big picture, they’re worth it.

From the Shelf: Recommended by a Friend

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An Irish Country Doctor is a James Herriot re-mix. Set in Ireland rather than England, the main character comes to us at the beginning of his doctoring career. And instead of animals he takes a job with the small town, eccentric GP.

Friendless, quiet and proper, Barry Laverty must find his way among the odd people of Ballybucklebo. Along the way he meets a romantic interest (of course), the heard-hearted hypocrite (inevitably) and a lovable, hapless drunk (naturally).

When I realized that the author actually was from Ireland, I must say the story gained some credibility. This novel is also the first installment in a series and the ending did leave me curious to read #2, so I’ll also whole heartedly give it that.

Otherwise, I still couldn’t quite shake the visual of James Herriot as I read. I kept expecting Barry Laverty to encounter a horse with bloat, or be expected to vaccinate a cow.

 

From the Shelf: Christian Living

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If you read any book on marriage, let it be this one.

Completely Christ centered, Gary Thomas doesn’t get caught up in the details. Without idolizing marriage, he is clear that it is a sacred commitment to another and the Lord. In each chapter he focuses on aspects of marriage like individual calling, creating a shared history, pursuing one another, sex, forgiveness, service, prayer and greater awareness of God’s presence.

The Biblical goal of marriage, he points out, is something much bigger than our happiness or comfort. It is a part of the calling we each have – to glorify, serve and grow Holy in the Lord. And when we focus on fulfillment in our Heavenly father, husband, friend, well… I’ll tell you in his words…

“…we will probably also have a happy marriage, but that will come as a blessed by-product of putting everything else in order.”

This is not a “how-to” style book, but it gives the big picture – which was convicting and refreshing to me at the same time.

 

From the Shelf: Current Events

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The first book I read this year was Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. A friend had sent it to me after Christmas, because the author lives and practices law in Alabama. In fact, one of his cases involved an accidental bombing in Dothan, 1977.

The main thread of this book explains the ultimate release of Walter McMillian, a man on death row for a murder he didn’t commit. As Bryan Stevenson works on this case, he uncovers many examples of a dysfunctional justice system. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and Alabama one of the highest in the country. This book outlines through many examples, some of the reasons why.

It was sobering to read the ways in which a zealous system misfires. Stevenson explains the role that politics play in election of judges, or even community pressure to lock someone, anybody, up for a crime. His stories talk about sloppy lawyers, unconcerned in defending the people who cannot pay and the resulting incarceration of innocent people. Stevenson tells stories of children prosecuted as adults receiving life sentences without parole, or those with severe mental disabilities who are imprisoned for life. He talks about all white juries in racially divided communities, perhaps not intentional but certainly unwise in the pursuit of justice. Prisons operating for profit, futile drug laws, the death penalty, the list goes on.

The question for me personally, is not so much if I should care, but how. I love my new home and state, but that doesn’t mean I have to blindly believe it’s the best at everything. Or that I can just assume every person on death row deserves to die. Loving is caring enough when things are terribly wrong and we should care when justice isn’t served. Or even when we should consider meeting justice with mercy.

I’m no opposer of the death penalty and those who pose a risk to society should certainly be restrained. Depravity is real and consequences of sin surround us. However, this book has made me think more deeply at least about my Christian response to the incarcerated, or those at risk to be. I want to be slower in talking about “those” people, the riff-raff, poor people, the ones who don’t look like me or make poor decisions. If I truly believe in the sanctity of life then there are no lines I can draw in the sand and I should certainly care about extending what Christ gives to me, ironically something like the title – just mercy.

*Bonus Read: Hillbilly Elegy*

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I added this to my list on the basis of its title alone.¬† It’s the memoir and opinion of J.D. Vance. Now a successful lawyer and author, Vance tells his story of growing up in Appalachian dysfunction. He writes in a deeply personal voice that explores the ‘why’ of white, working class poverty. The attitudes, the cycle of abuse and many other factors that contribute to generations of disadvantage.

This was the perfect book to read as counter point to Just Mercy. No one group has the market cornered on sad stories. Together these books have broadened my horizons and compassion for the mission field at home. I think the best way to sum things up is found in Hillbilly Elegy (pg.255). In writing about a boy named Brian who Vance mentors, he says;

“Any chance he has lies with the people around him – his family, me, my kin, the people like us and the broad community of hillbillies. And if that chance is to materialize, we must wake the hell up…I believe we hillbillies are the toughest g*%@ people on this earth. We take an electric saw to the hid of those who insult our mother…But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?

Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us…These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.”

If nothing else, food for thought.