Posts Tagged ‘books’

#CBR4 Cannonball 27: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey by Jane Austen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first time I read Northanger Abbey, I was disappointed. I thought the romance was rather cobbled together, and Catherine Morland seemed the most dimwitted of all of Austen’s heroines.

It improved upon the second reading, though. I think my problem with my first read was that I was expecting it to focus too much on the romance. But upon reading it a second time, I realized that the strength of this book is its emphasis on friendship, especially in regard to avoiding bad ones.

Catherine Morland is seventeen, and visiting Bath for the first time. Society in Bath is exciting, and young, na├»ve Catherine is taking it all in with much excitement. She’s overjoyed when she’s befriended by Isabella Thorpe, one of the prettiest and most popular girls in Bath. At Isabella’s urging, she begins calling her by her first name, spending all kinds of time with her, and even doing a few things that she might not have thought proper back home in Fullerton.

Isabella flatters her endlessly, but is also oddly inconsistent in her behavior. She declares that she won’t dance unless Catherine gets a partner, but soon abandons her to dance with Catherine’s brother, James. She declares that she doesn’t care at all for Frederic Tilney, but, somehow, always seems to be talking to him. But Catherine, loyal to the core, insists to herself that Isabella must have a good reason for her behavior, or must not know how her behavior is affecting others.

In the meantime, she also makes the acquaintance of Henry Tilney and his sister, Eleanor. Catherine likes Henry almost instantly, and she’s glad to find that she likes Eleanor, too. Eleanor’s not as flattering or flashy as Isabella, but she’s steady and likeable.

udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe, one of the gothic books that Austen references in Northanger Abbey

Catherine’s also a great reader of gothic mysteries. She longs for the excitement and romance that she reads about in these books, and her desire for adventure gets her in a bit of a pickle down the line. Austen uses this to gently encourage the reader not to put too much stock in what you read in books — even as you read hers.

The resolution of the romantic entanglements still felt a little too neat to me, but the friendship angle is still a good lesson to learn today. It’s good to have an open temperament, and to be willing to get to know and like people. But it’s also good to exercise discernment because there are many who would prey upon the unwise and take advantage of their trusting natures. Don’t become jaded, but don’t be a fool, either.

It’s a nice, little morality play, and it teaches an important lesson: don’t be blinded by flattery in friendship. A true friend doesn’t flatter, but tells the truth, whether it’s complimentary or not.

View all my reviews

#CBR Cannonball 25: Dancing under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag by Karl Tobien

Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin's GulagDancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag by Karl Tobien
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Side Note: If you can help it, try not to read too many books about death camps too close together. It can get very depressing and then, even worse, you could become numb to the suffering.

My friend let me borrow this book at the same time that she lent me Unbroken, and I was cautiously optimistic about it. But it was a mistake to read the two so close together because I couldn’t help but to compare the writing, and Dancing Under the Red Star, sadly, could not compare.

Karl Tobien, the author, is the son of the book’s subject, Margaret Werner Tobien. In some cases, an author close to the subject is able to add depth to the story by virtue of personal knowledge and a more intimate understanding of the subject. Unfortunately, a lack of writing ability will trump all of that. It’s not that Tobien is a terrible writer; he’s adequate, I suppose. It’s just that his level of writing ability can’t really do justice to his mother’s amazing story.

Margaret Werner moved to Gorky, Russia, when she was a little girl. Her father worked for Ford, and he moved to the factory’s plant in Russia during the Great Depression, hoping to improve his family’s situation. Unfortunately, things were even worse in Russia than they were back home. But Carl Werner was not one to go back on his word, so he kept his family in Russia.

russian yoda

Because he was American, he was eventually arrested and sent to a work camp. His family never saw him again. A few years later, Margaret was also arrested for treason and espionage. She spent ten years working as a prisoner. She survived, and eventually became the only American woman to survive the gulags (and this isn’t a spoiler because it’s right there in the title).

Margaret’s survival is nothing short of miraculous, but Tobien’s telling of his mother’s story is oddly lackluster. He kept emphasizing that his mother was the only American in all of the camps. Who cares? Did she suffer more because she was American? Countless Russians died, too. Were their lives worth less? Stalin’s cruelty knew no bounds; we’ve got that. Does it make him so much more of a monster because he wrongfully imprisoned an American woman?

I also had an issue with the title of the book. It led me to believe that there would be more about dance in it, like in Mao’s Last Dancer. But there was no mention of dance until well into the second half of the book, and it was only a small part of the story even then.

russian breakdancing

Karl Tobein is a Christian, and his mother became a Christian later in her life, too. I can appreciate that the cruelty of the gulag helped her to believe in the existence of God, which primed her to believe in the gospel later on. But the inclusion of so many random references to God, with only brief mentions of Margaret’s later faith in the appendices, made them seem tacked on just for the sake of mentioning God. I’m a Christian, so I can understand that urge, but if Tobien wanted to share her testimony of faith, I wish he would do it straight out and all at once, instead of scattering it throughout the book.

Ultimately, it’s an amazing story that isn’t told very well. I blame his editor.

View all my reviews

#CBR4 Cannonball 23: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little WomenLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some people might read Little Women and think to themselves that it’s outdated, old-fashioned, and out of touch. I mean, the book is basically a morality play about how to be a good, little woman and support the men, and learn how to be a real lady with manners and tact.

I enjoyed every word of it.

Maybe that makes me old-fashioned and backwards and an enemy of feminism, but I don’t care. Little Women is a sweet book about growing up and learning the ropes of life and dealing with tragedy and just loving the people around you.

Alcott used her own family as the inspiration for the characters in her books. You can see just how close she was to everyone in her family, but especially to her sisters and mother. Some people today might think that the way Alcott glorifies women in the roles of homemakers and wives and mothers is downright primeval, but I found it sweet. We’ve lost a little something in today’s culture with our constant pursuit of MORE. Look, I’m thankful to have the right to vote and work in corporate America and crack jokes in the presence of men, but I’m also a little sad that there’s so much pressure to do those things to the exclusion of making our homes pleasant and welcoming places and staying home with our kids and enjoying books like Little Women.

louisa may alcott

Louisa May Alcott

I’m not ashamed to say that I found the close relationship between the March sisters profoundly touching (esp. in light of the fact that my sister just got married, and although we both want to stay as close as ever, things are bound to change and will never be the same again). I’m not ashamed to say that I cried many tears through the course of the book (although I am a little embarrassed that most of those tears cropped up at the most inopportune times, like on the elliptical machine at the gym and whilst working the exit door at the Hurley Warehouse sale — *sob* “Thanks for coming.” *sniffle* “Bye, now.” *watery smile* “Come back soon”). I’m not ashamed to say that the romantic bits thrilled my chaste, little heart.

I loved that the March sisters occasionally bicker, but learn to forgive each other quickly. I love the lack of teenage angst. One of the things I dislike most about YA books these days is the heavy cloud of angst that obscures everything. No wonder kids are so sullen these days. Everything they’re reading (or watching on TV) is encouraging them to indulge in their angst, to become brooding and introspective and consumed with thoughts of themselves and their own problems. THOSE ARE ALL FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS, YOU BUNCH OF BABIES.

first world problems

You think the March sisters didn’t have problems? Their dad was risking his life in the Civil War, they were poor and nigh-on starving, and they lived in freezing-cold Massachusetts and had maybe TWO dresses each in their entire wardrobes. But instead of moping about and whining about how their troubles affect THEM, they try to make the best of it, and try to be cheerful for each others’ sakes. And they also find satisfaction in helping others wherever they can. Now, I know that this isn’t an antidote for everything, but it’s still better than whining.

Maybe others think that Little Women is antiquated, but I love it. I love its simple depiction of friendship, love, and family, and of many of the values idealized in it.

View all my reviews

#CBR4 Cannonball 22: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken: A World War II Story Of Survival, Resilience, And RedemptionUnbroken: A World War II Story Of Survival, Resilience, And Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve lived in Long Beach pretty much all my life, and have lots of friends who’ve lived in Torrance. I’ve passed by Zamperini Field numerous times without stopping to wonder who it was named after. Well, now I know.

Louie Zamperini was a world-class runner on the way to breaking the barrier of the four-minute mile when, suddenly, his country needed him. He heeded the call and joined the Army’s Air Corps as a bombardier. I just finished reading Catch-22, and I’m glad that I got to read a little of it before reading Unbroken because it helped me to create a backdrop of absurdity for what I was about to read.

Zamperini crashed in the middle of the ocean, survived on rainwater and fish for over a month, and was then captured and tortured by the Japanese.

My parents are Korean, and many people of their generation dislike the Japanese, a propensity passed down to them by their parents before them. I’d always known it was because of the Japanese occupation of Korea, but I’d never learned about the brutality of that occupation. After reading this book, I can understand a little better why my parents have such an aversion to the sound of the Japanese language. What happened in those death camps was inhuman at the basest level.

It makes me really sad and ashamed to know that POWs in American prisons are treated with similar cruelty and lack of dignity (Abu Ghraib, I’m looking at you). Maybe they’re not being starved, but we do know that they’re being humiliated. I get that some of them might have done awful things, but most of them were just following orders. Nothing gives us the right to torture them, no matter what they’ve done to us. This is the one time I’m going to have to disagree with Jack Bauer.

jack bauer

Anyway, Zamperini’s story is nothing short of amazing. The fact that he was able to survive so many different hardships is boggling. Hillenbrand’s writing is strong, precise, and honest, which I really appreciate. I appreciate that she didn’t try to gloss over his struggle with alcoholism after coming home, as well as his conversion to Christianity later in life. She told the story of the real Louie Zamperini without pulling any punches.

He’s still alive, by the way. He’ll probably outlive us all. Louie Zamperini is a survivor if ever there was one.

View all my reviews

#CBR4 Cannonball 21: George Knightley, Esquire, Book One: Charity Envieth Not by Barbara Cornthwaite

Charity Envieth Not (George Knightley, Esquire; #1)Charity Envieth Not by Barbara Cornthwaite
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: this book was written by a friend of mine. I read it as it was being written and gave feedback. I am thanked on the flyleaf for this service.

But I am doing my best to review it as if I were just reading any old book and had normal expectations of it. In fact, I was so afraid that I would be biased that I originally didn’t write a review at all, and rated the book only four stars, just in case the shine of knowing the author eventually wore off.

I just re-read the book for the first time in years, and I have re-rated it five stars. This book is fantastic, much more than mere fanfic, and a worthy sequel to Jane Austen’s Emma.

Emma is my favorite of Austen’s novels, mostly because the love interest, Mr. Knightley, is my ideal man. Witty, wise, thoughtful, generous, a faithful friend, never afraid to tell the truth for the good of those he loves, even at the risk of hurting them — Mr. Darcy ain’t got nothin’ on him.

George Knightley, Esquire, Book One: Charity Envieth Not is a retelling of Emma from Knightley’s point of view. We get to see what he was thinking throughout the events of Austen’s novel, and also get to take a look into the day-to-day life of a gentleman back in the Regency era.

mr. knightley (jeremy northam)

Jeremy Northam, in my favorite role of his

Cornthwaite’s book is well-written. She is very familiar with Austen’s style, but still gives Knightley a character of his own, without being too derivative of Emma (aside from dialogue written by Austen that had to be fitted into this book). We see Knightley’s thoughts and his interactions with characters that we either didn’t see much of in Emma or weren’t in Emma at all, as Miss Woodhouse of Hartfield would not have had any reason to make acquaintance with tenants of Donwell Abbey.

The book is also very well-researched. It was fascinating to take a deeper look at the responsibilities that the owner of an estate like Donwell would have had. He would have been involved in mediating grievances, making improvements to roads and bridges, in improvements to his own properties, in other matters of importance in Highbury, and would have had a full social calendar as well. Cornthwaite really did her homework, and it makes Charity Envieth Not a good primer on Regency era life as well as of the “he said” counterpart to a classic romance.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s available on Kindle, too. If you love Jane Austen and wish she had written more, this book is the next best thing to Zombie Austen.

View all my reviews

My Ten Favorite Books of 2011

I finished a Baker’s Cannonball (that’s fifty-three books) for CBR-III, but I only really finished forty-eight in 2011. But that’s plenty of books from which to choose a Top Ten.

10. Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan
y: the last man

This is actually a graphic novel series in ten volumes, and not a single book. But it’s a graphic novel, so it’s a quick and fun read. The premise of the story is that a mysterious plague has caused every male organism on Earth to die: except for Yorick Brown, an aspiring escape artist, and his helper monkey, Ampersand. It explores a lot of gender issues, but does so in a witty and interesting way. There are plenty of meta references and jokes, and a few parts even made me laugh out loud, which rarely happens when I’m reading.

But this is a graphic novel series for grown-ups, and not a comic book for kids, so be forewarned that there are some squicky parts that prudes like me don’t appreciate, including some nudity.

9. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
things fall apart

Culture changes with every generation. The dominant people of one generation can quickly become obsolete and shunned by the next. Things Fall Apart explores what happens when someone cannot let go of the past in order to adapt to the future. Okonkwo, the most powerful man in a remote Nigerian village, is unable to change as the times do, with tragic consequences. This book is a quick read, but a heavy one.

8. John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock by Iain H. Murray
john macarthur: servant of the word and flock

Iain Murray is, in my opinion, one of the finest biographers of our day, and certainly the foremost Christian biographer of our generation. His proto-biography of John MacArthur is a brief but encouraging look at the life of one of my spiritual heroes. Murray himself reminds the reader that a full biography can’t really be finished until the subject’s life and testimony are complete, but this is a great glimpse at what that full testimony will look like when it’s ready to be written.

I can only wonder who will write Murray’s biography when he is gone.

7. John Adams by David McCullough
john adams

John Adams is an historical figure who doesn’t get much play time in the American classrooms of today. But he’s certainly one of the most important patriots who ever lived, and historian David McCullough brings him to life in the pages of this book. Adams was a man of deep integrity and passion, and I appreciate that McCullough chooses to write about men of character instead of those who lived more glamorous and superficially exciting lives.

6. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
high fidelity

This is a book that will speak to anyone who’s ever loved and lost and pined after someone they couldn’t have. Hornby has a knack for writing about common human experiences with a humor and with that makes them seem somehow glorious because of how pitiful they are. Rob Fleming is everyman, and laughing at his romantic misadventures helps you to laugh at your own.

5. The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
the hiding place

One of the few books I re-read in 2011, I was surprised at how much richer this book was for me upon re-reading it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve grown to appreciate God’s love and care for His children since I first read it back in high school, but I was very personally encouraged by this book, and the testimony of Corrie ten Boom’s life, especially in how God used her time in a German concentration camp during WWII to teach her more about His power, grace, and love. This is a book that I’ll keep in my heart for the rest of my life.

4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
extremely loud and incredibly close

I hear that the movie version of this book is retaaaaahded, but don’t let that stop you from reading this beautiful, tragic, poignant book. One of the first novels to be set against the backdrop of 9/11, it came under some fire for being “manipulative” because of its setting. But I think time has been kind to it, and I found the story of young Oskar Schell’s search for a way to make sense out of life after losing his father in the 9/11 attacks to be profoundly moving.

3. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
black swan green

What High Fidelity is for relationships, Black Swan Green is for growing up. Jason Taylor is unpopular, unconfident, and uncomfortable. His parents are on the verge of splitting up, the girl he fancies fancies the class bully, and, to make matters worse, he has a stammer that makes King George VI look like Cicero. He’s the Rob Fleming of junior high, and David Mitchell writes this semi-autobiographical character with honesty, compassion, and feeling. It’ll make you look back on the miserable memories of junior-high awkwardness (if you have them. I have them in abundance) with fondness — not because they weren’t really miserable, but because that misery shaped you into the person you are today.

2. Native Son by Richard Wright
native son

Native Son may well be one of the most important works of American literature. It’s well-written, thought-provoking, and harrowing. It tells the tale of Bigger Thomas, a black man ironically forced into a terrible situation by the kindness of people in a class oppressing his own. Part of me wants to say it’s a sad story, but it’s also a very cold story. Wright himself described it best when he said of its creation, “I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.”

1. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Tim Keller
prodigal god

I guess you could accuse me of copping out because I put a Christian book at the top of my list. But while this book may not change the world at large, it certainly changed my life, and my view of God’s love and grace. We’ve all heard the story of the prodigal son, and we think that the word “prodigal” means “lost” or “wayward.” But what it really means is “wastefully extravagant,” and Keller posits that the real prodigal in this story is the Father, who lavishes his love and riches on a son that doesn’t deserve it. I can’t even write about this book without being moved to tears because I know that God has given me so much more than I could ever hope to deserve. Because of His prodigal love, all the riches of heaven are mine, and there’s not a thing I can do to lose it or earn more of it. This book is a must-read for Christians who want to glimpse into the depths of God’s love for them.

********

What were your favorite books of 2011?

Cannonball 41: John Adams by David McCullough

John AdamsJohn Adams by David McCullough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s no secret that I loves me some David McCullough. He’s like the Iain Murray of American history.

McCullough takes a lot of flak in some circles because of his narrative writing style, but as a nonacademic history buff (well, as nonacademic as a history buff can get), I appreciate that he’s not just reciting historical facts to his reader. He’s painting a picture of a real man who lived on this earth and happened to do extraordinary things.

And John Adams was a real man who lived on this earth and happened to do extraordinary things.

Adams was a simple farmer with strong convictions about the land where he lived. He believed that he and his fellow colonists ought to be free to pursue a fair living without being bossed around by a king who lived thousands of miles away. He got pulled into politics for the sake of this budding nation, and he served her faithfully, and often without thanks.

He was a man of integrity who was loathe to fight fire with fire when he was attacked, even when people were spreading untrue rumors about him.

abigail adams

Abigail Adams

He shared a remarkable marriage with a remarkable woman. He and his wife Abigail were apart more than they were together for much of their marriage. Adams often traveled abroad as an ambassador to continental European nations, trying to garner support for the budding American nation.

McCullough clearly did his homework. He read tons of letters and documents so that he not only knew what the historical facts were, but also so that he could imagine what Adams must have felt at certain points in his life. McCullough has a rare gift for sympathy that he uses to really get into the lives, heads, and hearts of these historical figures.

I really appreciate that McCullough chooses noble subjects to write about. He could’ve chosen to write about the life of Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. These two were more popular figures at the time, both a magnetic personality and commanding presence. Instead, McCullough chose John Adams, whose opponents mockingly called him “His Rotundity.” He wasn’t dashing or charismatic, but he had integrity. He didn’t own slaves, and he extrapolated the value of freedom to all men, not just to those who were like him. He chose a man of virtue to write about and immortalize, and I respect him more for it.

John Adams was well-written, compelling, and a great in-depth look at the life of a simple man whose country demanded more of him. He was a rare man, and his story inspires courage and duty.

View all my reviews

Cannonball 39: Brian’s Return by Gary Paulsen

Brian's Return (Hatchet, #4)Brian’s Return by Gary Paulsen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Lakers recently acquired Jason Kapono, a former Bruin who was, at one point, the most accurate three-point shooter in NBA history. So what happened? He got more playing time is what happened. While Kapono is undoubtedly one of the best three-point shooters in the game, it’s just common sense that, the more shots you take, the harder it’ll get for you to maintain that percentage.

jason kapono

Jason Kapono in Laker purp & yella.

This is kind of what happens to Gary Paulsen with Brian’s Return, the fourth book about Brian Robeson. Paulsen is a prolific writer, with over 200 titles to his name, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of his works are of the same quality. Like even the best professional basketball player, if you take too many shots, you’re bound to miss a few.

Brian Robeson has survived a plane crash and being stuck in the woods alone for a long time. This book deals with Brian’s attempt to reassimilate into civilized life, which ends with Brian seriously injuring a boy who picks a fight with him at a pizza parlor. Forced to see a psychologist after this violent act of self-protection, he realizes that he misses the wild, and decides to take a trip back into the woods.

Whereas the series’ first book, Hatchet, focused on Brian’s struggle simply to stay alive and adapt in the forest, Brian’s Return is filled with an affected air of mystery surrounding Brian’s inexplicable and irresistible connection with Nature. And I write “Nature” as a proper noun because that’s how Paulsen treats nature in this book, as though it’s a deity with whom Brian has a nebulous relationship. The whole “Mother Earth” vibe of this book made me keep rolling my eyes. Brian goes from a hardy kid who’ll never say die to a pretentious, sanctimonious tree-hugger who somehow has this mysterious connection with Nature after having lived in the woods for a mere three years.

house

Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House and Andre Braugher as Dr. Darryl Nolan, his psychologist.

If Paulsen had focused a little more on the survival side of the story instead of Brian’s mystical ear for hearing the pleas of Mother Earth, the book might’ve been more compelling. And the whole psychologist storyline was very “House,” Season Six. In fact, I was picturing Andre Braugher in my head in the role of Caleb the Psychologist. Meh.

But don’t get me wrong. I actually really like Gary Paulsen. I think a lot of his books are solid (especially the original Hatchet and his semi-autobiographical The Cook Camp, and anything he’s ever written about dogsledding). It’s just that this one was an airball. But I’m sure that Paulsen’s already jogging downcourt, waiting patiently for another shot opportunity.

View all my reviews

Cannonball 38: Native Son by Richard Wright

Native Son (Perennial Classics)Native Son by Richard Wright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” — Richard Wright, How “Bigger” Was Born”

Native Son is not only well-written and compelling, but I’d say that it’s one of the most important books ever written. By writing this book, Richard Wright confronted the America he lived in with the reality of a racism so deep that even the kindness of a white woman could drive a black man to think he had to kill or be killed. Reading this book will wound you (if you have a soul to wound), and the wound will be so deep that you’ll find yourself dry-eyed and struggling to reconcile it with what you thought about the world you live in.

On the surface, it’s a story we all read about in our high school history classes: Lincoln frees slaves. Slaves not really free. Freedmen struggle to make living in world that still thinks of them as second-class citizens. Freedmen commit crimes of desperation, are caught and condemned to greater punishment than the crime merits. We, safely on this side of history, exclaim over the horrors of such stories and aver that we shall never let such injustice occur again, all the while secretly priding ourselves in thinking that we are not so narrow-minded as the bigots of 1930s Chicago.

Heck, I’m not even white, and this applies to me.

The story of Bigger Thomas goes much deeper than the surface telling of a tale of injustice. Bigger, a poor black man, is offered a plum position chauffeuring a wealthy white family around. The Daltons are nice people, and they long to help the uneducated and oppressed blacks by offering them the opportunity to work and make a nice living. Bigger understands that this is a rare opportunity; rarer than once-in-a-lifetime. He’ll have a room to himself and more money than he’s ever made at any other job, all just to drive people around town in a car that he’d never even have the chance to see the inside of if not for this job. But their politeness makes him uneasy; he doesn’t know how to respond to them, and he responds to their kindness with suspicion and fear. Instead of helping him to let his guard down, it puts him even more on edge.

Then, the Daltons’ daughter enters the picture. A young university student, Mary has fallen in with the local communists. She and her boyfriend, Jan, insist on treating Bigger like their equal, insist that he call them by their first names, insist that he take them to a local diner that he and his friends frequent, and insist that he sit with them as they dine. He resists every single one of these advances, but ultimately feels powerless to disobey them. They think they’re treating him with the respect he deserves. He thinks they’re putting a target on his back. Even with the best of intentions, they’re displaying their ignorance of Bigger’s situation in life. Mary and Jan, for their part, are puzzled when he balks at being treated with the courtesy to which they themselves are so accustomed.

It’s the tension between all of these factors — the Daltons’ kindness, Bigger’s background and life experience, Mary and Jan’s desire to help Bigger to take what they think is his — that ultimately leads Bigger to commit a reprehensible crime. Wright doesn’t sugar-coat Bigger’s actions: it’s clear through the course of the narrative that Bigger’s first priority is self-preservation, and he does terrible things in order to ensure it. He’s not some hero forced to make a terrible decision by impossible circumstances. Yes, his options were less than limited. Yes, the situation was unfair and exacerbated by the strange coexistence of kindness and racism in the white folks around him. But Wright doesn’t make those excuses for Bigger, and he shows you the cruelty of Bigger’s actions in a harsh and unblinking light.

The book does a fantastic job of raising some important questions: Did Bigger really have any choice at all? What else could he possibly have done? How could the Daltons have treated him differently? It also raises questions that hit closer to home: Has the world really changed? Is it still like this for some people? Am I more like Bigger or more like the Daltons or more like Mary and Jan? Reading this book made me feel a gamut of conflicting emotions. I was embarrassed by the Daltons’ unwitting condescension. I was enraged by Mary and Jan’s insistence that Bigger do as they say, even though they were only insisting that he let them treat him as an equal. I was horrified by Bigger’s actions. I felt sympathy for Bigger. I felt sympathy for Mary and the Daltons. And, overall, I felt helpless to do anything to change situations like these that might be occurring in real life, right here in my own hometown.

This is where the importance of the book really lies. It shows you that it’s not enough just for you treat others with kindness and as equals. The Daltons showed Bigger kindness, and Mary and Jan treated him as an equal, and that’s what precipitated the events of the book. No, in order for that kindness and equality to make a difference, the entire society has to change. Bigger has to change, too. Bigger has to believe that the kindness is genuine; Bigger has to believe that equality is his right and is the norm. And the world we all live in has to believe that it’s a good and right thing for Bigger to be equal to rich, white folks.

It’s not often these days that you read a book that has to do with issues this deep. These days, what passes for literature is usually self-centered and individualistic; it’s all about how you, one person, has the power to rise above your circumstances. But Native Son shows the unavoidable reality that it takes more than just one man to change the world. It takes all of us.

View all my reviews

Cannonball 37: The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom

The Hiding PlaceThe Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine extended an unusual invitation to me: she invited me to go grave-hunting. As it turns out, Corrie ten Boom is buried in Santa Ana, and you can go visit her grave.

I was in high school when I first read her book, The Hiding Place. At the time, I read it more as a Holocaust book than anything else. I remember thinking, “Man, concentration camps suck.” But I don’t remember much else.

Well, before hunting for Miss ten Boom’s grave and standing there wishing I remembered why I thought I ought to admire her, I thought it might enhance the experience to reread the book. Boy, am I glad I did.

I missed so much the first time around. The book isn’t just about the horror of the Holocaust — it’s also about God’s faithfulness, even in the midst of difficult times. Of course the book talks about the amazing ways in which God answered prayers during Corrie’s time in the concentration camps. But it also talks about how He used it to teach her more about Him, and how her faith in Him grew through these terrible trials, and even of how He used various circumstances before Hitler came to power in order to teach her about God’s love.

I was especially impacted by her singleness. I remembered that she died a spinster, but forgot that, at one point, she was deeply in love with someone who ended up breaking her heart. After this happened, her father comforted her by reminding her that, yes, she did love Karel (the young man who ended up marrying someone else), but that God loved him more than even she could. And he encouraged her to pray that God would help her to love Karel with His love. She prayed that prayer and, in years to come, learned to pray it for people who did far worse things to her than disappointing her hopes for marriage.

The Hiding Place isn’t necessarily the greatest work of literature I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly a great testimony of God’s power and faithfulness. It’s easy to see why Miss ten Boom was traveling the world for speaking engagements well into her eighties, until a stroke took her ability to speak in public.

corrie ten boom

And if you ever get a chance, and you’re in the area, visit Corrie’s grave. It’s nothing fancy, and it might take you a while to find it in the section of the graveyard it’s in. But, much like Miss ten Boom herself, it’s simple, unassuming, and faithfully proclaims that “Jesus is Victor.”

View all my reviews

« Previous entries
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 33 other followers