Monday, June 30, 2014

Charis, Greek for Grace

Charis, by Preston Sprinkle
Publisher: David C Cook
Publication date: July 1, 2014
Category: Christian nonfiction
Source: I received this e-galley from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Back in December (2013), I found myself brave enough to get my first tattoo (yes, I've added on since then). I think it was mostly because I'd finally found something I believed in so much I would declare it on my person for eternity. Of course, I wrote about it - it was my first post of 2014, called Words as Symbols. (Check it out! There's a picture and a much more thorough explanation.) For a quick synopsis, the word I spoke about and tattooed is eucharisteo, which is Greek for thanksgiving. But the focus for this review is the root word of eucharisteo, which is charis (see it hiding there in the middle of eucharisteo?). Charis is Greek for grace, which happens to be the title and topic of today's book in review.

So now it should be obvious why this title caught my eye. I've spent a year and a half reading and rereading, thinking, and then tattooing this topic, so when a book centered on a piece of it pops up, it's a must try. This book being Christian nonfiction, the grace in question is God's grace. A grace that has no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It is best defined in the forward, where writer Tullian Tchividjian quotes Paul Zahl's definition of grace:

"Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable…. The cliché definition of grace is 'unconditional love.' It is a true cliché, for it is a good description of the thing.… Let’s go a little further, though. Grace is a love that has nothing to do with you, the beloved. It has everything and only to do with the lover. Grace is irrational in the sense that it has nothing to do with weights and measures. It has nothing to do with my intrinsic qualities or so-called 'gifts' (whatever they may be). It reflects a decision on the part of the giver, the one who loves, in relation to the receiver, the one who is loved, that negates any qualifications the receiver may personally hold...Grace is one-way love."

Author Preston Sprinkle teaches Old Testament classes in a college setting and what he noticed was that our current generations of Bible readers have been trained to read the Old Testament morally, looking to the many people and events as ways we should live. When you think of men like Moses and Abraham, you think of freeing a nation of slaves and a man of obedience...not a murderer and pagan. And that's Sprinkle's point of this particular book on grace. Moses and Abraham were not wonderful guys by any means, but God uses His grace to work wonders through the most vile of people. These stories of grandeur are not focused on moral people's moral acts, but on God and His grace alone as the center stage.

Sprinkle speaks quite frankly, often using the Message translation of the Bible, which makes scandalous topics sound even more so. I appreciate frank talk in a book like this (as opposed to sugar coating it), but at points I wasn't sure if it was for shock value as well.  It didn't bother me at all, just something I noticed.

It was a different take on the topic of grace for me. Usually the topic is discussed as far as what grace means and how it can work in your life and the lives of others, which Sprinkle does in Charis as well. However, taking those time old stories and showing them through the lens of grace adds a whole new level of understanding for someone who has heard the same stories her whole life.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Begin the Week with Words

Here's a quote with an "ouch" factor in it!

"Comfort zone: the name we give to the ever-shrinking little space where fear, timidity, and selfishness corral our possibilities, confine our aspirations, and severely limit whatever use we might be to the world around us." The Book of Not So Common Prayer, by Linda McCullough Moore

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Sometimes the library fairy determines what you will read next. I had my summer list posted for all to see and had read 20 pages into Cloud Atlas, determined to keep going. And lo and behold, I get an email notification that my library hold is ready from my local library. And being an ebook, all I have to do to get started is click "download" on the app. Who am I not to respect the library fairy's timing? After all, it was The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin.

Almost all of my favorite blogs have reviewed The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and loved it. I have to say it was just straight out enjoyable. A.J.'s life and business are sinking, for good reason, but he is too depressed to care. Until a series of fateful events take place and A.J. is given a second chance at family, friendship, love, and life. The story takes us through the latter years of A.J.'s life and definitely glosses over/through a few happenings, but it didn't bother me much because the characters and story are just too enjoyable. The events discussed are the most important for the story's focus too, so you can't complain about unnecessary detail. And of course, as the title suggests, the book is rife with book and author references. Oh, and the abundance of bookish quotes, such as: "People tell boring lies about politics, God, and love. You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to one question, What is your favorite book?" What book lover can resist that? That in itself should make book lovers want to read it. So I join the ranks of those recommending The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry for pure enjoyment.

Now back to Cloud Atlas. Anyone have a book about books they'd recommend?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Summer 2014 Reading List

Going into each season of the year it's fun to pick out the books I'm looking forward to the most. Plus, making a list means I'm might actually get to them...but not guaranteed! I made a list of twelve books to read for Winter 2014 and got around to all of them except for one! That's a personal record as far as following a reading list goes.

So here are the fifteen on my radar, in no particular order:

Now to decide which one I should read first?!

1. The Memory Keeper's Daughter, by Kim Edwards
This was the one book from my Winter 2014 post that I didn't finish, so it only seems right to carry it over here. It is on my TBR Pile Challenge, so I will get around to it, but I have a feeling it may end up toward the bottom of this summer reading list.

2. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
Between those who have read this book and/or saw the movie, I've heard it is rather complicated to follow at the start, but worth the effort! It is on my Chunkster Challenge, which is a plus. Also, I want to watch the movie with a good friend who goes through movies like I do books. (He has a movie blog, JoeMama's Movie Reviews. He owns thousands of takes us an hour to go through his cases to decide what to watch. We call him JoeFlix.)

3. Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell
A big title in YA recently that I want to put on my classroom shelf come September, so I thought I'd like to read it first. You know, while it is still clean and in one piece.

4. Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes
Another book with rave reviews, as well as an author who receives rave reviews herself. (Is there a better way to praise a book than say it had "rave reviews"?) This one and any of her other titles sound promising based on what the majority of people have to say about Moyes's storytelling and writing.

5. Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
There's gotta be a humdinger of a classic on the list, right? If I don't read it during the summer, I'm afraid I won't be able to give it the attention it needs during the busy school year. I made sure to do this with The Count of Monte Cristo last summer and it worked much better than when I read Les Mis (unabridged) three months into the school year the year

6. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck.
Another classic, but one long overdue for me. I teach Steinbeck every year in American Literature, so I should probably be more familiar with one of his most culturally known works. Not to mention, the Great Depression/migrant worker theme will match up nicely with Of Mice and Men.

The Uglies series have really creepy faces on the covers.
Although I like them better than the newer covers,
I keep them covered up sitting in my room. Creepy.

7. Uglies series, by Scott Westefield
This is a series of four YA books I brought home from my classroom shelf for the summer: Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras. The idea is that everyone is born ugly and has major cosmetic surgery at age 16 to make them pretty. The series has an obvious storyline, a problem with the surgeries, etc., but "the true thrust of the story is that individual freedoms are far more important than the need for uniformity and the elimination of personal will" (Wikipedia). The Big Brother vibe comes into play with this dystopian sci-fi, so I'm happy to see it's YA with a deeper meaning.

8. Matched trilogy, by Ally Condie
Also from my classroom shelf: Matched, Crossed, and Reached. At age 17, the dystopian society of Matched does just that...they are each matched up with a member of the opposite sex. Their lives are completely controlled by the government and so you know where this is going...yep, rebellion. Good old Katniss style, whose Hunger Games series came out two years before Matched. But that's okay, I'm getting the full timeline of rebellious female characters, since Tally in Uglies dates back to 2005, three years before Katniss.

9.  Miss Peregrine's & Hollow City, by Ransom Riggs
Again, more rave reviews, which I thought, "okay, sure" and promptly handed my classroom copy off to a number of students to guinea pig it for me. I kid you not, every single one came back loving it. Still, I put it off. Hollow City came out and those same students begged me to get it. When I started seeing great reviews for it, I decided to buy it. When a senior wrote to tell me that handing him Miss Peregrine's the year before made him start reading again, I decided to bring them home to read for the summer. (See, my students do come in handy. I use them to guinea pig all the new YA material, so I can only read what seems most worth it!)

So there you have it...a most ambitious list that doesn't include books I've taken for review, or the three intriguing nonfiction e-books I purchased a week ago, or the other books on my TBR and Chunkster Challenges, or the nine other books sitting on my dresser haunting me nightly, or the bookshelves I pretend I don't see.

Oh dear Lord. Help me.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Begin the Week with Words

Although Rise and Shine did not turn out to be a good book, I did find this good quote.

"In a world that had become like that restaurant, friends and enemies and rivals and lies all with an ear cocked heavenward for the messages from cell phones and e-mails and lunch conversation, the only possible way to be silent was to disappear." Rise and Shine, by Anna Quindlen

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Book of Not So Common Prayer

The Book of Not So Common Prayer, by Linda McCullough Moore
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: June 3, 2014
Category: Christian nonfiction, self-help
Source: I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

The title of this book caught my eye because it deals with a major piece of Christianity and the title plays off of a well known prayer book, The Book of Common Prayer. The title is pretty straight forward as far as what you'll find inside. Linda McCullough Moore discusses why we pray and how prayer changes people as much as it changes circumstances. Some of the information I've heard elsewhere, but there was also discussion that was new to me...this being the "not so common" part I assume.

Unlike most Christian nonfiction books that may speak to prayer in a chapter or scattered throughout, Moore takes the reader through her personal journey of instilling prayer throughout her day, every day. She details her thoughts before, during, and after the process. I liked this aspect, as it gives the reader a clear example of what she means...such as when she talks about her mind wandering. She also goes further than an example and talks about what a problem can mean and how to fix said problem (such as a wandering mind). And last she gives many examples of how she's prayed...many of the examples beyond use of words or other activities (art or music) coinciding with words. Overall I thought the book taught new aspects and clarified others. If you find the information in it repetitive, then you've probably read enough books on prayer and should just get to it!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

We Were Liars

Well, I didn't see that one coming...even with warnings and crazy non-reviews that should've made me suspect some crazy ending (like Andi's at Estella's Revenge, which finally pushed me over the edge and made me read it). We Were Liars follows a few summers of the wealthy Sinclair family on Beechwood Island, where they own four summer homes and an endless supply of money to buy whatever other happiness they could want.

The part you can see coming is that such immense wealth can only lead to no good. The part you can't see - and won't until it smacks you in the face - is the shape in which the "no good" hits. It's tragedy at its worst, preventable tragedy.

Cadence suffers memory loss and debilitating migraines due to the tragedy, so the story follows her as she pieces together what happened that one summer two years ago. Although you are collecting the clues as you read, the ending will still hit you put of nowhere. There's not much else worth saying, because the ending will turn any details I give on end anyway. So read it. It's a relatively fast read too, due to both the size and the suspense.

PS: Summer vacation is almost two weeks in and I've read five books already! I'm stoked!

Anyone else read any REALLY outstanding YA lately? 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Rise and Shine...and Disappoint

Once again, I'm tackling the TBR pile while I have time between reviews I've requested or accepted from authors and publishers. This time I read Rise and Shine, by Anna Quindlen, which has been on my shelf since 2006 (yikes)! I've read numerous of Quindlen's older books, all written by her and read by me before the year it's been awhile.

I remember liking her older books. She was among the first authors that introduced me to contemporary fiction in college - outside of my usual classics and what there was of a YA genre in my teen years. Rise and Shine's summary (both on the cover and Amazon) hooked me. Here's an excerpt of it:

"It’s an otherwise ordinary Monday when Meghan Fitzmaurice’s perfect life hits a wall. A household name as the host of Rise and Shine, the country’s highest-rated morning talk show, Meghan cuts to a commercial break–but not before she mutters two forbidden words into her open mike." And this event is said to unravel much about Meghan and her family's lives.

Overall, I didn't care too much for the story. The story centers around fame and celebrity-crazed America, which sets up huge possibilities. However, the two curse words Meghan speaks on live TV didn't seem to have the effect the summary implies they would. It's not even clear why she said what she did or what was done about it. And it seemed Meghan used her wealth to run away and recover easily, whereas others have to face life head on in the midst of trials in order to keep surviving. No convenient running away. Realistic or not, that just made me dislike her even more.

I didn't care for any characters except Meghan's son Leo and only latter for sister Bridget and her boyfriend. Bridget's social work job and life interested me vastly more than Meghan's fame and maybe the difference between the two was supposed to be noticeable and purposely speak of something I missed.

The ending was the best part, mostly because that's where much of the action took place and the story picked up. I would read Anna Quindlen again because I've read her before and enjoyed her writing and stories. It was just this book that seemed rather disappointing.

Anyone out there ever read Quindlen? Who was among the first authors to introduce you to a new genre?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox


The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell, has been sitting on my shelf since 2008. Hence, why it is on my TBR Pile Challenge list for this year. At 245 pages, it was a quick read too.

I'm not going to say this is the best book ever, but it was a good story and I wanted to keep reading all the way through. It centers around the history of two sisters, Kitty and Esme Lennox, who grow up in a time period where women are never more than housewives and mental illness (and what it's not) is not really understood.

Iris, the only remaining Lennox relative to the sisters, doesn't know much about her family's history and what she does know, she soon finds out is all lies. The story definitely keeps you moving, as the third person narration switches between Iris, Kitty and Esme of the past, and Kitty and Esme of the present. To complicate matters of piecing the history/story together, Esme has been locked away for sixty-one years and Kitty has Alzheimer's. The question is, how does someone exist in one place for sixty-one years without her one and only remaining relative knowing she existed?

There's not much to say without ruining the piecing together of the story, but if you're looking for a quick story to entertain you, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox will do the trick.

The history of "treating" mental illness is astounding. It unnerves me and makes me sick to read about in books such as this. Any such books you've read?

Begin the Week with Words

An amazing insight to any moral or value a person is something that becomes stronger and truer with practice. Not something you wait to use at the right or special moment.

"Courage, I seemed to think, comes to us in finite quantities, like an inheritance, and by being frugal and stashing it away and letting it earn interest, we steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account must be drawn down. It was a comforting theory. It dispensed with all those bothersome little acts of daily courage; it offered hope and grace to the repetitive coward; it justified the past while amortizing the future." The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Things They Carried

Knowing I needed to start tackling more of the reading challenges I joined this year, I picked up The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien, which has been on my TBR for awhile. (See my original TBR Pile Challenge post.) The first day of summer was inspiring and once the book and I clicked, I read it in one day.

I went into this story knowing it was about war, and specifically one I don't know much about, Vietnam. What I hadn't realized is that the book is a memoir of sorts. O'Brien served in Vietnam. That takes it to a whole new level and I began reading the book a little more closely when I figured out the author IS the narrator a few pages in.

Google search 
Another difference between this book and the usual war stories I read is the presence of actual war stories. The usual WWII/Holocaust stories I read are of citizens caught in the mix and the effects of war, but not direct stories of battle. Although the end results are the same, it is different to read the happenings of combat. As I read, I was constantly reminded of a TV show series my dad watched in the late 1980s-early 90s. He rarely watched any TV faithfully except for this show, "Tour of Duty," which came to me in clear snippets of scenes as I read. I looked it up and, sure enough, the series takes place during the Vietnam War. Tim O'Brien definitely writes well, making that decades long connection literally click in my mind, the theme song "Paint it Black" by the Rolling Stones playing over and over in my mind.

I don't feel specific examples of stories are needed. Start reading and O'Brien's writing will take you away and make you see what he has to say. He has great insight on many things, which it seems he learned in connection with his war experience. The interesting theme that reoccurs is the line between truth and untruth. O'Brien goes into detail, using his own story/experience as an example about how the truth can also not be the truth. One of his statements connected to his insight on truth is that "...sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past and the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story." 

I salute Tim O'Brien for his service and use of his wonderful writing talent to share with us his life and others he encountered. Thank you to all who have served and their families. For "they carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried." 

Any cut-above-the-rest war stories on your shelves readers?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Forgotten Man - Guest Post

The Forgotten Man, by Amity Shlaes and Chuck Dixon
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication date: May 27, 2014
Category: Graphic Novel
Source: I received this ARC from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. However, I felt most incapable of reviewing this book. I did not realize how political it was when I requested it. My grasp on (and caring about) politics is at times tenuous and my historical knowledge of the Great Depression does not include the full politics behind it. I wasn't sure if it was this medium or myself to blame, so please welcome my co-worker, friend, and fellow lover of books, Sam as he gives his insight on the graphic novel. Sam teaches Senior English, including AP Composition, and has his Master's degree in English Education. He has a brilliant memory, later recalling minute details from books he's read or whole sections from movies without makes me jealous.

In the interests of disclosure, I’d like to note that I have not read the original book, The Forgotten Man, by Amity Shlaes.  However, after reading the graphic novelization of that book by Amity Shlaes and Chuck Dixon, I found myself wishing I had read Shlaes’ original book instead.
For the sake of expounding on the plot, the graphic novel frames the Great Depression through the memories and experiences of Wendell Wilkie, a real-life lawyer who felt government should tread lightly regarding its interference in the private sector.  Mostly, he believed the government had an unfair advantage because of its seemingly limitless resources, although he did feel that some aspects of society could benefit from government intervention.  Granted, that’s an abbreviated biography of Wilkie, but it provides a little context.
The graphic novel traces the events leading up to the depression and the Depression itself.  It also traces the major and minor people who had a hand the proceedings, whether as a helpers, hindrances, or helpless observers.  I’ll grant that the approach is nothing if not intriguing.  Morphing a non-fiction book about the Great Depression into a graphic novel is an idea with a sense of novelty.  However, the black and white 1930s illustrations cannot disguisethe sheer amount of information sacrificed to adapt the work into a graphic medium.  Ultimately, this book is like hearing about an amazing Broadway performance rather than actually attending one.
After some rumination, I failed to ascertain exactly what audience this graphic novel is targeting.  It certainly can’t be aimed at those who read Shlaes’ book; the redundancy factor would seem to outweigh any potential interest in the illustrations.  In my case, I felt this graphic novel served little purpose beyond perhaps appealing to the rather obscure, esoteric niche of people who enjoy reading books on the Great Depression twice.  One effect of the work, as I mentioned earlier, is that it made me want to read the original work--an effect Dixon most likely wasn’t shooting for.
Putting that objection aside, the graphic novel’s lack of an index created significant agitation.  With any historical text involving a vast array of characters, the reader may find it increasingly difficult to remember certain people, especially if said individuals are only mentioned in passing dozens of pages before the author mentions them again.  The dearth of an index causes increasing frustration the further one gets in the work.  
I know I don’t speak for all non-fiction readers, but I often refer to the index to keep my memory fresh on characters and events, a practice which not only refreshes any memory lapses, but also gives the information more value.  After all, authors who provide indexes do not do so because they enjoy sifting through their drafts to do what is fairly tedious cataloguing.  Rather, they understand that readers often need a road map to assist their endeavors to understand and appreciate the material more fully.  Although the graphic novel does have a timeline and a character list at the end with short biographies of the characters (ranging from three to five or so sentences), those reference points are woefully insufficient for a subject of this magnitude.  
 As if the previous complaints aren’t enough, the very nature of graphic novels guarantees that a vast quantity of information and analysis will not make it from the novel to the graphic novel.  Essentially, this graphic novel is nothing more than an abbreviated version of what I can only presume is a much more thorough non-fiction piece (the original book is over 500 pages whereas this one clocks in at just under 300).  Since we all know that even thoroughly researched works often lack all facets of the subject matter because of either bias or the vastness of the subject, abridging the subject matter even more does little to help anyone’s attempts at understanding the Depression.
For the average reader, the graphic novel approach coupled with the lack of indexed reference points are clear indicators of disaster.  Most people are not familiar with the major players and events surrounding the Depression, and though the graphic novel does provide those major players and events, it does not do so in an optimal manner.  Not having read Shlaes’ book, I can’t give any detailed comparison between the text of her book relative to the dialogue and narration in this graphic novel.  I don’t doubt that Dixon (and Paul Riuoche, the illustrator) put a generous amount of effort into this graphic novel, but I feel that effort could have been better served elsewhere.  Like movies based on real events, too often the makers modify the material to suit the medium.  Call it personal prejudice, but I doubt I’ll ever come to believe that putting non-fiction into the graphic novel medium will enhance the subject matter.

What do you think about graphic novels? Agree with Sam or not? Does topic make a difference?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Begin the Week with Words

One thing I liked about The Sixteenth of June is the bits of insight from the characters. They seemed to ring true for me.

"We all spin stories. That's what we do. We want people to see certain things about us and not others. What matters is whether you let others in to the truest story, the one that is the scariest to tell." The Sixteenth of June, by Maya Lang 

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Sixteenth of June

The Sixteenth of June, by Maya Long
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: June 3, 2014
Category: Fiction
Source: I received this ARC from the author in exchange for my honest review.

Today is the last day of school for me - as a teacher, that is. June is well on its way...the sun is shining, our pool is open, the grill has been firing, and I have already snuggled a book on the porch swing. The Sixteenth of June, by Maya Lang to be exact.

I love books tied to other famous stories. The dedication of The Sixteenth of June reads, "For all the readers who never made it through Ulysses (or haven't wanted to try)." I have to say that any parallels between Lang's story and Joyce's are totally lost on me. I have never wanted to read anything Joyce and I can't promise I will. However, missing that connection doesn't ruin Lang's book in the least. Lang's story focuses around a wealthy family with two sons, Stephen and Leopold. Leopold craves his family's love and attention, working to earn it, but never feeling satisfied he is loved in return. Stephen, stuck in the seventh year of his PhD dissertation, cannot move forward with life, instead debating ways to run from the rut he finds himself in. Nora, who was first Stephen's best friend and then Leo's fiancée, is struggling to feel alive, or even fake it, as she continues to mourn her mother's death a year after the fact.

I admit I started slowly, but it was my fault for the busy week I had when I started reading. By the second chapter, I started connecting with the characters. Nora had me with one thought about her mother's battle with cancer: "The truth is that it was hard to be around her. She used to joke that cancer was like a mistress. I didn't know what she meant, but maybe now I do. I guess I felt pushed out. She couldn't be with her kid with the mistress in town." Having experienced a close relative's battle with cancer, I understood Nora instantly. It's not that the person is pushing anyone out - in fact, they need family support more than ever - but cancer has a way of taking over life in more ways than you can assume or imagine. It takes out more than the physical body if one's not careful.

Once I made that connection with Nora, I was set to see what the other characters had to offer. I've never been in Stephen's situation. My life went straight to college, a career, grad school, and continued with my teaching career. I've always felt I am where I should be. However, that didn't stop me from feeling sympathy for Stephen. He's sincere and insightful about those around him. He knows the meaning of life lies beyond his parents' ridiculous wealth, yet, at the same time, he struggles with knowing who he is and where he is headed. Unlike Stephen, Leo has a secure job, but Leo often speaks about his relationship status with his family members, which I can also relate to. You have visions of how relationships will work out in the future and they don't always come to fruition, for whatever reason. I imagine Leo's struggle is very real for many people.

Everything the story builds comes to a head in the end with a great statement, "We all spin stories. That's what we do. We want people to see certain things about us and not others. What matters is whether you let others in to the truest story, the one that is the scariest to tell." Of course, this requires a trusted confidant on the listening side.

So, even without my understanding of the Ulysses parallels, I found myself liking The Sixteenth of June through these character connections. Their real thoughts and both founded and unfounded fears made them human. I enjoyed this story.

What's your first read of June?

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Storyteller, a Tale on Forgiveness

I have read many Jodi Picoult books over the past fifteen years, as well as my fair share of Holocaust works, both fiction and nonfiction. Knowing both as well as I do, you would think I would've read The Storyteller with absolute caution. But, once again, Jodi Picoult yanks you into the story, shocking and breaking your heart with her unnerving story and twist ending. The exception with this Picoult book is its historical relevance and a very real question of forgiveness. It's not just a random story that "could've been." This is a well-researched Holocaust story. It is devastating beyond words. Really, there are no words.

A quick basis for those who aren't familiar with this book: 92-year-old Josef Weber approaches a young Jewish woman, Sage Singer, befriending her and eventually revealing that he was a Nazi soldier who worked in the women's section of the infamous Auschwitz death camp. He details his life growing up, which gives a unique perspective of a desperate, suffering Germany that accepted Hitler as their only hope of working, eating, and living again. Josef, who seems to regret his past, asks Sage to forgive him on behalf of the Jews and help him die. The other half of the story comes from Sage's grandmother and Holocaust survivor, Minka, detailing Holocaust horrors I've never read before. It is not a story for everyone, although all of the narrators' voices are captivating in their own ways.

The theme running throughout is that of forgiveness. Whose is it to give? Is there anything unforgivable? What does it mean to the person doing the forgiving? As Sage hears Josef’s Nazi history and her grandmother’s Holocaust survival story for the first time within days of each other, her mind is reeling with conflicting emotions. When she makes a connection between the stories, intense pain and anger are the emotions that win out. Knowing forgiveness is the right thing doesn’t make it the easy or logical thing to do. One particular passage caught my eye. When Sage asks how a priest can hear confessions he can't bear and still go on, her friend Mary, an ex-nun, gives her this advice on forgiveness:

"You know, Sage, Jesus didn’t tell us to forgive everyone. He said turn the other cheek, but only if you were the one who was hit. Even the Lord’s Prayer says it loud and clear: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Not others. What Jesus challenges us to do is to let go of the wrong done to you personally, not the wrong done to someone else. But most Christians incorrectly assume this means that being a good Christian means forgiving all sins, and all sinners" (Picoult 450).

What is Mary saying here? Honestly, I discussed this passage and the overall story with some trusted mentors because the idea of forgiveness is so backwards to human nature. (Their gems of wisdom are paraphrased within this paragraph, along with my own.) Simply put, that Sage must be able to forgive personally before she can forgive corporally. You cannot forgive on a bigger level until you've personally let the hurt and anger go. Something else Mary understands is that, for individuals, letting go of personal hurt often depends upon where you place the line between the forgivable and unforgivable. Although forgiveness is an exercise in grace that sets up a person's heart and mind for peace, hope, and joy, it is extremely hard to think clearly and let go in the grip of intense emotion. Rather than have Sage tackle the bigger issue in forgiving, Mary has her focus on the personal hurt, knowing it will also deal with the bigger picture at some point. Forgiveness frees the injured party from bitterness and oppression more than anything else. As it's been said, "Withholding forgiveness is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die from it."

Sage has indeed drawn a line and in the end she realizes this; however, you'll have to read the story to see her decision for yourself. Not to mention all of the other ways forgiveness comes into play in this story. If The Storyteller doesn't make you think, I don't know what will. I highly recommend it. If you'd like more background on the true story behind this story, see Jodi Picoult's site. She gives more insight on the topic of forgiveness and what she found among the Holocaust survivors she interviewed.

Anyone out there a Jodi Picoult fan - or not? Favorite book - or the one that did you in?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Begin the Week with Words

Haven't read Ayn Rand for a long time - and don't necessarily agree with everything she has to say - but this is a good quote.

“I could die for you. But I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, live for you."
                                                         The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand

Last week of school! Hopefully, I'll be back at the blog full speed after this week!