Five Favorite Books I Read in 2017

I chose poorly in 2017, which is perhaps why I was unable to reach my 40-book goal this year. (I’m still reading No. 32 The Man Who Smiled and listening to No. 33 Artemis). I selected no less than a dozen books that ended up being ho-hum or outright bad, which made my resolve for reading a weak one. Some books I didn’t even review on the blog, if that tells you how uninspired I was (Believing the Lie, The Graveyard Book, and more). Plus, four of the books I read this year were for my literature and creative writing class, so while they counted toward the total, I didn’t review them here.

Yet, since I read so many unremarkable books this year, choosing my favorite five was easy! (Original reviews are linked.)

  1. Ready Player One
    Hands-down, this is one of my favorite books I’ve ever read, and credit goes to Susan (of “Susan and Lesli”) for recommending it to me. Granted, I listened to it on Audible instead of reading it on paper, but if there was ever a book to listen to instead of read, it’s this one. Narrated by Wil Wheaton, Ready Player One is a love letter to the 80s kid who longs for the good old days of Family Ties reruns,  and Atari.
  2. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
    There are two time periods that capture my heart in equal measure. One is the back-to-back Tudor and Elizabethan Eras in England, and the other is the Roaring 20s, specifically the Lost Generation writers who lived an expat life abroad. Zelda Fitzgerald surely would’ve had a different life with access to proper mental health care. Alas, her tragedies flowed straight from her mixed-up mind into real life. If you are equally interested in the Fitzgeralds (and Hemingways), you’ll love Z. 
  3. The Great Divorce
    I’m not sure why it’s taken me until my late 30s to enjoy C.S. Lewis, but better late than never. In a time that feels spiritually void, The Great Divorce reminds me that God is always present and always listening, offering perfect love for our imperfect selves, and the white noise of our collective bickering is small potatoes when it comes to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. From a literary standpoint, I am all over the imagery and symbolism of The Great Divorce. The writing and message are a perfect pair.
  4. Wonderstruck
    I selected Wonderstruck as one of four novels I taught this semester in my literature and creative writing class, so there isn’t a stand-alone review to link (yet). Written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, Wonderstruck begins with two stories – Rose in Hoboken, 1927 and Ben in Minnesota, 1977. Rose’s story is told via illustration, while Ben’s is a traditional narrative. The pair of children seem to have nothing in common, but as each side unfolds we see that Rose and Ben have much in common, from their hearing impairments to their search for family. Told in three parts, Wonderstruck is a fast-paced, emotional tale of endurance and an exploration of what one might do to find a home. (Wonderstruck has been made into a film!)
  5. A Column of Fire
    Aside from Hogwarts, Kingsbridge is my favorite fictional setting and I was thrilled to go back there one last time. Just in time for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, A Column of Fire brings together several families – some Protestant, some Catholic, and a few who long for religious tolerance. Not only did it quench my thirst for the Elizabethan era, it was the perfect book to read after a series of duds. Per usual, I didn’t want it to end.

An honorable mention goes to Faceless Killers by Henning Menkell, the author of the Wallander series. If you’re into crime/thriller novels, and especially if you’ve watched the BBC TV show Wallander, check it out! I’m currently reading a second Menkell book (The Man Who Smiled) and have a third waiting in the wings. He’s joined the company of Tana French and Mo Hayder on my crime/thriller bookshelf.

My goal for 2018 is to MAKE BETTER CHOICES. I’m not sure where my brain went this year, but I wasted a lot of time on books I didn’t enjoy. Not again! Cheers!

Book Review: The Great Divorce

After the cluster that was my Searching for Sunday reading experience, I craved a literary touchstone so spiritually challenging that I’d be knocked right off my high horse. I went straight to an old standby, C.S. Lewis.

The Great Divorce has been on my shelf for more than a year, and after readjusting my expectations to encompass allegory, I dove into the narrative and tried very hard to picture the fantastical images of heaven and hell.

Or rather, the Valley of the Shadow of Life and the Grey Town.

It would take multiple posts to unpack all the imagery and symbolism in The Great Divorce, so I will effort here to present the broader message of the book.

The story begins with the unnamed narrator waiting for a bus in the Grey Town, a dull place fraught with tension and general discontent. There is life in the Grey Town, but it’s a miserable one full of grumbling, inconvenience, and conflict. Aboard the bus the narrator learns from another passenger that the Grey Town is large and outspread, that it takes a lengthy amount of time to get one place or another. Everything about the place is tiresome.

Once full, the bus seems to lift up and out, a curious floating, and lands on a cliff near a river with surrounding trees and grass. It is a place of unmatched beauty. Upon descending the bus, the narrator learns that despite its tranquil appearance nothing in this new land is soft. In fact, the grass is stiff and hard. To walk on it causes him pain.

He also sees that the passengers on the bus, himself included, are not solid bodies as they once presumed. They are ghosts. Immediately they are approached by a second group of beings, called Spirits, though they have solid bodies, not ghostly ones. The narrator then understands that he is in the afterlife.

What unfolds is a collection of interactions the narrator witnesses, combined with conversations with his own personal Spirit and teacher, the deceased 19th Century writer and preacher George MacDonald. The ghost-Spirit interactions include a painter whose pride prevents him from seeing God’s hand in creation, a grumbling woman whose life-long nagging and self-importance ruined her husband’s life (and her own), a bitter man who believed the whole of religion was a scam, a man who battled lust (characterized by a lizard who lingered on his shoulder), a shame-filled woman who still acts on the premise that everyone can be seduced, and so on. Each of these ghosts, minus the one who wrestles with lust, engages in a failed conversion. They all reject what the Spirits offer – a new home in the Valley of the Shadow of Life, which leads to life everlasting in the presence of God. Unable to shake their earthly sins, they return to the bus that will take them back to the Grey Town.

If the ghost had chosen to rid him or herself of the sin that separated them from God, thereby moving to the Valley, then their time in the Grey Town was purgatory. If he or she refused the gift of life, then their residence in the Grey Town is eternal.

Everything about the Shadow of the Valley of Life is freedom and, in turn, joy. To read that most of the ghosts ultimately rejected freedom and joy is heartbreaking, but the reality is that it happens in real life all the time.

The bottom line is that C.S. Lewis crafts conversations between the ghosts and Spirits to reflect thoughts you and I have regularly. He captures our cynicism, our crutches, our pride, our jealousy. He paints a very real picture of what it means to be a flawed human and a seeker of truth. Our innate duality is in constant conflict, and ultimately we must decide which side will win.

For what it’s worth, this book was just the meat I needed. Though the story is allegory and not a dissection of scripture, I’m entirely interested in the idea of second chances found in an intermediary realm. In the words of a Methodist minister from Lubbock, Texas:

I believe there is a door open to meet Christ. If people who don’t know him in this world make it into the final kingdom of God, it’s because they met him through the final door. I’m open to the possibility.