Book Review: Grave Goods by Ariana Franklin

I haven’t been posting as often because I’m in the throes of the first trimester yuckies (the technical medical term). And while I’m thrilled to be pregnant again, it’s certainly not doing great things for my writing at the moment.

However, book group continues to provide me with some intellectual stimulation.  Left to my own devices, I’d curl up with some brainless bestseller and kill time until the nausea abates. (And now you know what reviews you can expect next.)

We read Grave Goods because our group recognized a lack of mystery titles in our repertoire.  I’m not much of a mystery person.  I feel that they’re often too formulaic with less of the focus on character development than I’d prefer. But I was pleasantly surprised by this one that challenged the typical mystery conventions and crept into the historical fiction genre a bit.

I don’t recommend starting a series with the third book, but that’s what we did. The author did an admirable job of catching us up on important details, but I felt that all that backstory was a bit rushed.  I will gladly seek out the first two books to see what I missed, but I can’t comment on them, since I’ve only read this one.

The story is set in England in the 12th century, which is enough, right there, to pique my interest.    The main character’s name is Adelia Ailar, Mistress of the Art of Death (quite the title).  She serves as King Henry II’s forensics expert, in a day long before CSI: Miami. It’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination to expect a woman in the dark ages to do any authoritative kind of medical examination, but as with many elements of the story, it’s best to suspend doubt and enjoy the ride.

Adelia was trained as a doctor in Salerno, Italy.  She travels with a motley crew, most importantly including Mansur, an Arab attendant who poses as the actual doctor (and her as the translator) to appeal more to back water dark ages types who don’t see many woman doctors.  It’s a clever ruse but seems pretty thin most of the time. Also along for the ride is Adelia’s illegitimate daughter and her nursemaid.

This particular quest is focused on whether or not recently uncovered bones belong to the famed King Arthur and Guinevere.  King Henry commissions Adelia to find out for sure.

The attitudes presented in the story are astoundingly modern, earning guffaws from me at several points in the book.  But once more, the suspension of disbelief comes in handy.

If you’re not much on mystery but like a good historical romp, especially one involving Arthurian legend, then this is a good book for you. But if you have a hard time stomaching feminism and liberalism forced into a Dark Ages setting, I’d look elsewhere for a fun read.

If you’re considering purchasing this book as a result of this review, please consider using my link to Amazon, so I get referral credits to purchase more books to review.

Published in: on November 6, 2012 at 4:51 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , ,

Book Review: The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard Morais

This is a book for foodies, especially ones that are fascinated by the French restaurant business.

I like how Ligaya Mishan of the New York Times describes the book:  “Slumdog Millionaire meets Ratatouille.

Hassan is a Muslim Indian who leaves his native country after tragedy hits his family. His larger than life father directs his family in a culinary journey across Europe, eventually settling in France and opening Maison Mumbai, a flamboyantly Indian restaurant in a small town in the Alps.  Across the street, Madame Mallory is the proprietress and head chef at a well respected Michelin two star restaurant.

I wish the story settled here with the relationship between the young Indian man and the classically trained French chef, because the pages devoted to their relationship are the best parts of the book.

But the book follows Hassan as he climbs the French cooking ladder, gaining Michelin stars along the way, and making friends in the French food industry.

Rags to riches isn’t a bad storyline, but I think this book has so much more potential than this simple story of ascent.  As the story left behind Madame Mallory, I grew more and more dissatisfied, anxious for it to return to her and the small town in the Alps.  It never did, even though she’s fondly recalled throughout the story.  Her reach into Hassan’s life never completely disappears.

Another peeve of mine is how Hassan abandons his rich Indian culinary heritage once he begins training in the classical French style. I was looking forward to hybrid Indian/French cuisine and instead got a return to the most classic French style possible.  Hassan had so much more to offer!

There’s one powerful spiritual moment for Madame Mallory that is so poorly depicted (and understood by the author), that I was very put out.  Mallory has an encounter with Jesus in a roadside chapel, but the author doesn’t realize that’s what’s going on.  It’s a powerful, transforming moment that changes the entire trajectory of the book, and the author gives credit to an inspirational painting. Only Jesus is capable of that kind of transformation in someone’s life. But sadly, he doesn’t get the credit.

Despite my minor annoyances with the book, it is truly enjoyable and a great chance to dive into the world of high cuisine, with a focus on supreme quality ingredients and extravagant preparations.  Read it for the relationship between an old French chef, stuck in her ways, and a young Indian boy with a unique gift for preparing food.

If you’re considering purchasing this book as a result of this review, please consider using my link to Amazon, so I get referral credits to purchase more books to review.

Published in: on September 28, 2012 at 3:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Here’s the great thing about book groups: they challenge you to read all sorts of books that you’d normally avoid.  This is one of those books.

The subtitle for this book is “Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.”  The family in question is the Dodd family, a US senator and his wife and two grown children, entering Berlin in 1933, as Hitler is gaining power.

Dodd himself is a bit of a bore. He’s a professor type (of history), and he goes to bed early and continually whines about missing his farm in The South and his lack of time to write a massive history book about The South.  He’s a bit of a cheapskate and steps on all the wrong toes by trying to convince every other diplomat to pinch pennies like he does.

It’s his daughter that provides much of story, as she’s a wild child who seems to have little inhibitions when it comes to men, especially ones in high power positions.  Through her we learn about the lives of high-ranking Nazis and other diplomats and high profile figures.  She gets a little too much attention, but sex sells.

What fascinated me about this book was the antisemitism that was rampant throughout the world at this time. It’s easy to point the finger at Germany, but it was really bad in The States as well.  And it’s heartbreaking to watch the progression of the persecution of the Jewish people go unheeded by the US because the US didn’t want to offend Germany (largely because Germany had lots of unpaid bonds we were hoping to collect).  Also, high ranking US diplomats felt a bit hypocritical to call Germany on their persecution of the Jews when we still hadn’t worked out our civil rights issues yet.  But you can bet that the Jews in the US were making a big noise from very early on, trying to convince our countrymen that something very wrong was happening to German Jews.  Nobody was listening.

The amount of research that went into this book is staggering.  It’s an impressive feat to weave that much historical material into the story of one family.  It loses focus a lot of the time and leaves a lot of story lines unfinished, but if this doesn’t bother you, then it might be a great way to learn about a period in history we don’t focus on much (we focus more on the war itself). I think it’s helpful to know how evil comes into power, so we can be on the lookout for it in the future (and stop it before it goes out of control, as there were many opportunities in this case).

Larson is a local writer (living in Seattle), which is one of the main reasons we picked this book. It’s great to support local writers, wherever you live. And you never know when you’ll bump into them, which for book nerds like me, is a thrill.

Oh, and for movie buffs, rumor has it that Tom Hanks is making the movie (playing Dodd), with Natalie Portman potentially playing the daughter.

If you’re considering purchasing this book as a result of this review, please consider using my link to Amazon, so I get referral credits to purchase more books to review.

Published in: on September 24, 2012 at 8:00 am  Comments (1)  

A Phone Call with Jesus

Did you know that Jesus talks on the phone?

Lizzy and I were doing our daily quiet time, and she wasn’t being so quiet.  I was knee deep in my Bible Study Fellowship assignment for the day, trying to finish it before we needed to head out the door somewhere. So I was a little on edge.

I was sitting on the couch, Bible in lap, pencil furiously taking notes. Lizzy kept hopping on and off the couch, grabbing books and toys, asking for my attention (asking what I was “coloring”), and I’d had enough.  Didn’t she know it was time to sit and quietly read her Bible?

She had one of our old cell phones and was yammering loudly on it. I hadn’t bothered to listen to what she was saying, or I wouldn’t have done what follows.

In a loud voice and a tone I normally reserve for keeping her from running into the road, I told her to be quiet and stop talking into the phone.

But then it hit me.  She was having her time with Jesus.  It just looked a lot different from my time with him.

Here’s her phone conversation:

“Hey Jesus”

*Nodding head*

“How you?”

*Nodding head*

“Lizzy fine”

“Alright”

“Okay”

“Bye bye”

Repeat.

Once I realize what I’d interrupted I encouraged her to go back to calling Jesus on the phone.  She half-heartedly repeated it for my benefit and hasn’t done it again since.

Of course, I find this heart breaking.  How quick I am to rebuke and judge.  And how much power I have to discourage.

I was being a religious snob because I thought my way of spending time with Jesus was the best one, the only one.  And I was teaching my daughter that lesson.

I bet her time with Jesus was a lot more fruitful than mine.  It sounds like she heard a lot more from him than I did.

I think next time we sit on the couch to read the Bible, we’ll spend some of that time on our cell phones.

Book Review: Bringing up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman

As a bit of a Francophile myself, Pamela Druckerman picqued my interest in a recent NPR talk about her new book, Bringing up Bébé. I sat in my car, riveted, until it was over.  She told wild tales about how French children sit through several course meals and eat green foods when prompted to do so.  She explained how French children sit on beach blankets and amuse themselves for hours on end while their parents hold adult conversations.

Needless to say, I immediately ordered the book.

This isn’t to say my little Lizzy isn’t an angel, which she is. But there are times when I’d like a little of the French spirit of autonomy and independence infused into her.

Of course, the French don’t have all the answers to every parenting problem, but it’s fascinating to see the cultural mindsets that go into child rearing, especially when compared to the American ones.  It also helps that Druckerman is a bit of a comedian. I found myself laughing out loud a lot and reading excerpts to Dan.

Briefly, the French focus on educating one’s child to become independent, just about from the moment the children come out of the womb, is fascinating in comparison to our culture where it seems like mothers are continually finding ways to make themselves more attached to their children (i.e. attachment parenting). I’m not saying all attachment parenting ideas are wrong (I wore Lizzy around during fits of colic for months on end), but the French might have a better approach to helping the kids help themselves.

While I don’t necessarily like their attitude toward institutionalized childcare from a very early age, I certainly can appreciate their focus on giving children a chance to try things for themselves (instead of always rushing to their assistance when they merely want comfort or a distraction).  It’s tough, as it goes against all our motherly instincts to run to the child at any sign of distress.  But there’s wisdom in letting the child have a moment to figure out how to entertain himself/herself or soothe himself/herself.

Lots of food for thought here.  And while I don’t plan on raising Lizzy to be French, I think I have a lot to learn from a different culture’s child rearing perspective, one where public tantrums are rare and meals aren’t stressful events.

Here’s a link to the radio program that prompted me to read the book.

The Bible in Three Words

Leave it to my two-year-old to summarize the Bible in three words.  Kids see things we don’t see through all the mess and complication of life.

I’ve started a daily quiet time where we both read our bibles together, quietly.  I have varying degrees of success with this, but the more we do it, the better it’s going (on good days, I get fifteen minutes of very interrupted reading time).

Lizzy doesn’t quite understand the idea of silent reading, so while I read my Bible, she reads one of her seven children’s bibles out loud (can you have too much of a good thing?).  At first, I found it highly distracting and slightly annoying, but then I started listening to what she was saying.

Most of the time, she opens one of her Bibles, turns to a story, and says “Jesus is alive!!,” then turns to another story and yells the same thing. It doesn’t matter if the story is about Noah or Jonah or today’s example, The Tower of Babel—“Jesus is Alive!!”

And you know, she’s right.

Jesus is alive today, as he was yesterday (in the Bible stories), and will be in the future.  He’s the great “I AM,” the name God shared with Moses (Yahweh).  He is, and he always has been, and he always will be.

But it’s more than that.  Because Jesus is alive, he conquered death on that cross.  That’s the good news, the big deal about Easter, that whole sin, death, suffering thing is over because of him, because Jesus is alive.

Those Bible stories, even the really old ones, where the pictures books focus on the animals frolicking in the Garden of Eden or on Noah’s ark, they’re also saying that Jesus is alive.

In the Garden, when death first rears its ugly head, God promises that Jesus is coming on a rescue mission.  He’ll crush that awful snake (Genesis 3:15).  Jesus is alive!

When Noah builds that ark, and God rescues people he loves from destruction, it’s the same thing Jesus does when he rescues us from destruction, from death and hell.  Jesus is Alive!

And that tower, all about people trying to reach heaven, to build a powerful fortress to protect them and bring them to the level of God.  That’s about Jesus too.  He is a tower, but not one created by man.  He’s the fortress, the sanctuary.  This tower is built from heaven down, bringing God down to us (not us to God’s level). Jesus is Alive!

Why is it that my college students have such a hard time finding the major theme in short stories, but my two-year-old nailed the major theme of one of the longest and most complex books in the world?

Jesus told us this would happen.  The kids get it.  The wise adult’s don’t.

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children (Matthew 11:25 ESV).

Jesus is Alive! What more is there to say?

 

If you like thinking about how the Bible is all about Jesus, I highly recommend The Jesus Storybook Bible, which is one of Lizzy’s favorites as well. 

Book Review: The Night Circus

ImageI picked up this book because everyone is reading it. I see it all over the place, even in the grocery store check-out line.  And when books finally hit my suburban checkout line, I know that I better read them.  I like to read what everyone is reading to keep in the cultural conversations surrounding these popular books.

And it’s summer.  This book is an excellent summer read. It also comes on the tails of the Harry Potter obsession with magic, and I think it is a more “grown-up” look at magic, perfect for those Potter fans who have grown up along with the series.

The book is a bit of a romance, I admit.  But I think there’s enough magic in there to appeal to male readers as well.

While the cover seems to indicate the story is about a circus, it’s really more about a contest between two magicians, pitted against each other from their youth in a mysterious competition that even they don’t fully understand.

A young boy and a young girl are chosen as competitors by ominous mentors who shape them, train them, and push them to excel in magical skills.

The story becomes entwined with the story of a circus that appears in town and countrysides by night, with a black and white aesthetic and unique acts.  Crowds flock to the circus, which is more than a circus, as this challenge is playing out in its tents.

There are some confusing points where new characters are introduced for no clear reason, and they seem to distract from the momentum of the story, but I quickly forgive the author when we get back to the main storyline that keeps pushing ahead.

Even though dates are given at the start of each chapter, I often found myself wondering where or when we were in the story, but I eventually gave up trying to figure it out and just went along for the ride.

Don’t expect any great literary feats here, but expect to have a hard time putting it down.  And enjoy a little escape into a magical world that has moments of stark realism, giving it a surprising edge of believability.

Expect a movie version soon.

Published in: on September 3, 2012 at 8:00 am  Comments (1)  

Book Review: The Dovekeepers

I miss doing book reviews, and with less time to dedicate to the blog these days, I’ve come up with a way to keep talking about books.  This is my first “10 minute” book review.  Basically, I’ve got 10 minutes to talk about whatever book I’ve just finished reading.

If anyone has tips for making the most of a short book review, please let me know! This is tough for someone who has a lot to say and far too little time to say it (read: rambles a lot).

10-Minute Book Review #1:  The Dove Keepers by Alice Hoffman

This book inspired me to get back into the book review business.  It’s been one of the books I’ve enjoyed the most in the past couple years—highly captivating and hard to put down, with realistic characters and a sense of urgency, of life and death that keeps you reading. Plus, you learn a lot of very interesting history in the process.

It’s historical fiction, set in the years around the time of the destruction of the second Jewish temple (A.D. 70).

It’s the story of several women but told from the perspective of four women who lived during the final years of the stronghold of Masada in the wilderness of Israel.

Each woman has a journey to reach Masada, and their lives there become interwoven, as they all are given the job of taking care of the doves that fertilize the fields of Masada.

If you know much about history, you’ve probably heard about why Masada is famous, how things ended there. But even if you don’t know its history, you’ll be captivated by journeys and struggles for these women.

What intrigued me the most was its focus on the magical side of the Judaism of this era.  This is the dark, forbidden magic practiced by women, but still acknowledging the Jewish God and traditions.   We often hear the stories of men in this time, and it’s refreshing to hear what women were doing back then, even if some of them are practicing on the outskirts of orthodoxy.

Published in: on August 30, 2012 at 9:02 am  Comments (2)  

Teachable Moments

As a brand new mother, I freaked out that I wasn’t engaging my newborn with enough structured stimulation. Basically, I wasn’t educating her properly.

I think I saw another mom with a Baby Einstein book, teaching her two-month old to read (or something like that), and I felt the pressure to plan a training ritual for her little brain, including expensive learning tools that all the “good moms” touted.

But then I was sorting laundry with her sitting next to me and held up a sock and said, “White sock.”  Her eyes lit up, and she smiled as I held up another white sock and said the same thing.  I talked about the entire pile of laundry in the same way, and I realized that the best teaching was taking place in them moment, in the middle of my mommy chores and mundane tasks around the house.

Basically, I didn’t need new fangled, IQ stimulating toys.  I just needed some patience and a willingness to find opportunities to teach my baby as they came along—out on walks, in the grocery store, or while washing dishes.

So it’s not surprising that I expect my father in heaven to use more formal methods to teach me.  I am ready and waiting at the appointed times, with the correct materials. I sit in church, ready to learn the lessons he has for me for the week, or I open my Bible, the proper curriculum for lessons, and wait for the teaching to follow.  I’m not saying that God doesn’t use these opportunities to teach.  It just seems like he has a far more varied education in mind for me.

Just like Lizzy learns best during teachable moments, God is also teaching me in the moment, in those little mundane tasks of life.

That same laundry pile, the odious chore I faithfully perform weekly, is a chance for me to learn a little humility (workout clothes smell pretty awful a week later).  I also develop a servant’s heart as I stain stick puke and other bodily fluids out of Lizzy’s clothing (sometimes, I fail to learn the lesson and throw the item directly into the garbage).

The best teachable moments are those really frustrating ones, the ugly times when life isn’t going my way.  I’m learning that God is in control and I am not.  I learn about his grace and my weakness.

The challenge is using those ugly moments to teach Lizzy as well.

She’s there, eyes open, when mom makes mistakes.  I admit, I’m not so great at recognizing those stressful moments as learning opportunities. I forget that she’s soaking up my responses.  (“Uh-oh” has been on of her favorite phrases for awhile now…wonder where she learned that one.)

I’d like to say that the times when I arrive at the grocery store and have forgotten my wallet or when I am late for an important appointment, that I step back and consider how I’m teaching Lizzy to handle the stresses and trials of this life.  If I’m honest, I’ll recognize that the lessons I teach her at these times are about how to freak out and lose one’s cool, instead of asking for help or praying for guidance.  A little laughter would help too.

I think I like those structured, formal, planned teaching moments because they are under my control.  I have a lesson plan.  I have a goal.

It’s not surprising that God uses daily life to teach me. I mean, his son, Jesus, did that constantly with the disciples. I didn’t see Jesus running to the nearest Christian supply store to stock up on the latest disciple training materials.  He used what he had, which was wine, shepherds, figs, fish, and rocks.

Just like for the disciples, learning takes place for both Lizzy and me in the midst of the mess of life. In the highs and lows, we’re both learning.

Here’s hoping that when teachable moments arise, we’re both good students.

Are you a good student, in planned times of learning and unplanned ones as well?

“The ear that hears the rebukes of life Will abide among the wise” (Proverbs 15:31 NKJV).

Faith like a Child

I want to believe like Lizzy believes.  I want childlike faith.

She’s obsessed with “hearts” right now.  Every electronic device in the house has been repurposed as a stethoscope (daddy is proud, of course). The phone, my iPod, the thermometer—all get placed upon our chests.  Lizzy holds the item against us and says “heart.”

She was holding the thermometer to my chest while I was changing her diaper, and I figured that since she knows what a heart is, she might be ready to talk about what it means, its metaphorical meaning of love and compassion.  (You’ve got to know that the literature instructor in me is anxious to teach her about metaphor.)

After she pointed to my “heart,” I told her that Jesus lives there.  And she didn’t look shocked in the slightest.

I just told her that the guy in her picture Bibles, who is at once a baby and also a grown man, is living inside my chest.  He’s also the guy that died but is also alive.  This wasn’t a problem for her.

“Alright,” she said.

That was it.  Jesus is in my heart.  If you ask her where Jesus is, she’ll point to mommy’s heart.

What a privilege it is for me to share these important truths with my daughter.  If only I could so readily accept Truth.

With Lizzy’s faith, I would read that God works out all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28), and I’d say “alright.” Meaning, I wouldn’t freak out so much when the dinner I prepared crashes to the floor, where its container shatters into a million shards (tonight’s lovely example).  I’d recognize that God has a greater purpose, even though the situation stinks at the moment.

I’d read that God is the healer, meaning he can heal anything (Exodus 15:26).  So the hamstring I pulled this morning during my workout wouldn’t worry me so much.  God could heal it in an instant, if it worked out according to his purpose (see above).

And the power outage we had this morning for a few hours wouldn’t concern me as much.  I’d remember what Jesus said about the birds of the air and the lilies of the filed, how they don’t need to worry because God cares for them (Luke 12:24-27).  And they don’t have electricity either.

Lord, grant me Lizzy’s faith.

If you’ve never read Robert Munger’s little story, My Heart, Christ’s Home, I highly recommend it.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:14-19 ESV).

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 274 other followers