Classics and Novels Read in 2019

Continuing the series of posts on my 2019 book list, these are the novels I read. 🙂

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I remember watching the movie (with Gregory Peck) as a child, but I had never read the book. The movie was good but the book—even better. The story is set in the south during the Great Depression and brings to light the racial tensions of that era.

Scout is a young girl whose father is a lawyer. When a young black man is accused of raping a white girl, her father agrees to take the unpopular case. Tension in the town escalates and Scout finds herself in the middle of all the drama, coming to terms with growing up and learning what it means to stand on principles without compromise.

Lee’s novel is a lesson on how to write a novel. I sat down and analyzed her writing style, picking it apart into little pieces and taking notes in order to better my own writing.

The Sea Wolf by Jack London. Wolves seem to figure prominently in London’s action-filled novels. In The Sea Wolf, the savage beast of prey takes a human form. Wolf Larsen is the cruel, feared, and hated captain of the Ghost, a sealing schooner. When by a freak turn of events a bookish intellectual named Humphrey Van Weyden winds up aboard the schooner, two men, two worlds, and two life philosophies collide sharply in exaggerated contrast to one another. Both fists and philosophical quips fly between them as each seeks to discover what the other is made of.

The theme of this book is philosophically existential in nature: What is the purpose or meaning of life? Is there life after death? What of God? Darwinism and natural selection?

Jack London was a self-proclaimed atheist. But what is most interesting is that he endued both his protagonist and his antagonist with pieces of his own life philosophy—then pitted them against each other in crude juxtaposition. Van Weyden (or “Hump” as he comes to be referred to) is an idealist, an altruist; one who believes in immortality, in God, in the goodness of life.

Wolf Larsen is the atheist, the materialist, prominently exalting a selfish individualism and hedonism as his virtues and seeing life in every form as a Darwinian, crawling “yeast,” agreeing with “the Preacher” (whom he loves to quote) that “all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” He compares himself to Lucifer and proudly defies his Maker.

London himself embodied the idealism and altruism of “Hump,” and the atheism of the Wolf. The book almost seems to read like an inner argument of the author with himself. Perhaps the most telling scene is when Wolf Larsen, while imbibing a breathtaking scene of nature, reveals his own inner struggle when he says with deep, wistful longing:

“I am filled with a strange uplift; I feel as if all time were echoing through me, as though all powers were mine. I know truth, divine good from evil, right from wrong. My vision is clear and far. I could almost believe in God.”

In his antagonist, London essentially admitted that if there was no God and no immortality, London’s own morality, altruism and idealism were schizophrenic—utterly pointless. He had no answers for this irreconcilable paradox. In the story Wolf Larsen gives expression to his secret desire to be able to see life as his opponent does, but feels there is no hope for him to do so. Did this mirror a conflict in London’s own soul? It seems to read to me as a searching, rather than a declaration; a question rather than a statement.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. Wow. This was not your typical hearts-and-flowers romance novel (though what am I talking about? I’ve never read romance novels, lol). This book had some meat to it: the contrast of sense/wisdom and folly, the elevation of virtue, the condemnation of bad character and unsound judgment.

Elinor, the eldest of the three young Dashwood sisters, is a girl with a good heart and good sense. Marianne, the second, though a sweet, wonderful person, is forcefully driven by her changing feelings and emotions—and loves to have it so. She fully gives herself up to whatever emotion she is feeling without checking it or demonstrating self-restraint if appropriate.

The girls fall in love with two very different men. When all their dreams come crashing down, they have two very different responses to their heartbreak.

A thoroughly satisfying novel with lots of food for thought.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I loved this novel. The sarcasm, humor, wit, the playful banter, the unforgettable characters. I can see why this has endured as a popular classic.

Miss Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters are in want of husbands in 19th century England—or rather, ahem, “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” When two high-society—and so wonderfully single!—young men move in “next door,” the whole neighborhood is in a flutter.

But when Eliza meets the daunting Mr. Darcy for the first time, she is hardly charmed. His rude, arrogant, and offputting behavior make her quickly decide he is the last man on earth she would ever be prevailed upon to marry.

And so begins this surprising, humorous romance with its many twists and turns.

“There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.”

“And your defect is a propensity to hate everybody.”

“And yours,” he replied with a smile, “is wilfully to misunderstand them.”

Emma by Jane Austen. Jane Austen said of the book’s title character, “I am going to take a heroine who no one but myself will much like.”

She was wrong. For all her foibles and follies, many readers have come to love Emma since the book was first published in 1815.

Emma grows up in a well-to-do family as an intelligent, talented, independent, and attractive young lady with bright prospects. But she has a tendency to trust too much to her own judgment and to meddle in the affairs of others. This well-intentioned meddling soon sets Highbury in a spin as things completely unexpected and beyond her control begin to happen. What will come of it all? Can the confusing web be untangled?

Austen knew how to create living characters—and develop them well. Her characters display good or evil character, and because they are so human, even the heros and heroines are allotted their faults. But the difference between the wise and the foolish in her stories is pronounced: the wise learn from their mistakes, are teachable, and repent; the foolish don’t even recognize their own folly, much less take a course of action to turn from it.

I think her books have endured and are so loved because her characters (while sometimes caricaturized) are highly relatable, because she deftly deals satire and wit, and because the deeper theme of a man or woman’s character—how their actions and attitudes affect themselves and those around them—runs through every page of her novels.

By the Light of a Thousand Stars by Jamie Langston Turner. A friend had recommended this author to me, so I went to the library and chose one of her books at random. 🙂 This story is told in sections from the perspective of four different female characters, each one facing the rough stuff life brings with varying responses.

A theme running through it is the wonder of how God uses our everyday interactions with others to bring people to Himself—and why we should trust Him and believe He will work for good in those around us as we strive to faithfully share Jesus. Those who turn many to righteousness will “shine as the stars forever.”

The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr.

This is an allegory of the battle between good and evil. Chauntecleer the rooster and the other barnyard animals go about their daily lives with no idea that they are keepers of Wyrm, the great evil locked in the center of the earth. It is their job to keep him there.

When a rooster from another farm listens to the wily temptations of Wyrm, Cockatrice is hatched–and all hell breaks loose. Rich in symbolism, this was a great read. (Some language.)

The earth had a face, then: smiling blue and green and gold and gentle, or frowning in furious gouts of black thunder. But it was a face, and that’s where the animals lived, on the surface of it. But under that surface, in its guts, the earth was a prison. Only one creature lived inside of the earth, then, because God had damned him there. He was the evil the animals kept. His name was Wyrm.

Paradise Lost and Other Poems by John Milton. This epic poem by the 17th century Christian writer was the first English poem to be sold by subscription and to be made the subject of a detailed critical study. Milton addresses the problem of evil in the world: the fall of Satan, the sin of Adam and Eve, and the justice and mercy of God the Creator. (My edition also included various early poems, sonnets, etc.)

I enjoyed it, highlighting many of my favorite parts. I realized that in order to get the most out of his works one needs to be well-versed in Greek mythology (which I am not). His many allusions and metaphors draw heavily on this and ancient history. The breadth and scope of the man’s education is itself incredible.

I would have a difficult time choosing my very favorite from the books above, but Sense and Sensibility would definitely be among those I most enjoyed. Favorite novels read in 2019–what are yours?

Family Read-Alouds for 2019

The last several years my end-of-year book posts with micro-reviews of everything we’ve read for the year have grown longer and longer. I made it through 33 books in 2019, so this year I’m going to split them up by categories, starting with the books the kids and I read aloud together (or in a few cases, that I previewed for them to read on their own). 🙂

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. This was a favorite of mine as a child and I finally shared it with my kids this year. When the Herdmans—the “worst kids in the history of the world”—show up asking to participate in a church pageant, the story of the birth of Christ is about to become very touching and real for them and for those who come to see the play.

This story will have you laughing…and possibly crying. We started and finished this 80-page book in one sitting then watched the movie based on it.

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare. Speare’s Newberry award-winning children’s novel was published in 1961. It tells the tale of a young Jewish man named Daniel who seeks revenge on the hated Romans who have conquered his land. He and a band of other Jewish boys eagerly await the return of the promised Messiah, hoping He will rid them of their enemies.

When a Teacher from Galilee shows up and multitudes begin to follow Him Daniel is intrigued, but hesitant. Will this man wreck vengeance on their enemies? Or has He come for some other purpose? Is He the answer to their longings? Or just another distraction?

The Hedge of Thorns, Lamplighter Rare Collection Series. Years ago my husband read this short little book. He was very impressed and decided that one day he would have his children read it.

That day came—this year. I ordered a copy from Grace and Truth Books and shared this little gem with the kids. Originally written in 1611, its language has been updated to better convey its timeless truths to young people of modern day. It tells the story of a brother and his little sister who learn that God sometimes puts “thorns” in our path to protect us from greater spiritual dangers.

A brief ten chapters, it’s a great little read—I recommend!

Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, selected by Helen Plotz. I picked this up at a used book store one day and decided to use it as a read-aloud with the kids. The beginning of the book contains a short biography of Stevenson’s life. This Scottish author of classic favorites such as Treasure Island and Kidnapped was quite a character himself!

The collection was quite varied; some of the featured poems were written for children, while some dealt with more mature themes like death and loss (there were even several I chose to skip when reading them to the kids, due to his sometimes irreverent way of expressing his opinions on religion).

Paddington’s Storybook. I have always loved A. A. Milne’s classic characters from the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. But after reading Paddington I realized I was finding a place in my heart for the loveable, innocent, silly bear who turns every situation into a disaster—and yet manages to save it all in the end.

With the story set in London, my kids (and even husband) were going around making little exclamations like “Crikey!” after reading this book (English authors/books are so fun!).

On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Another sequel in the Little House series, Laura tells the story of her family’s settlement in Minnesota, the good times and the challenges they faced as they started life again after they had to leave Kansas.

Wild Light by Erik Stensland. This is not a children’s book.  It’s not even fiction. I had bought this in anticipation of visiting Rocky Mountain National Park during a family trip. We wanted to learn what we could about it. Stunning photography combined with scant but informative text about the history, wildlife, and original peoples of the Rocky Mountains make this a great coffee table book.

Sarah, Plain and Tall and Caleb’s Story by Patricia MacLachlan. I remember watching the movie series based on these children’s books years ago, but I’d never actually read the books.

In Sarah, Plain and Tall, a woman from Maine answers a mail-order bride advertisement to meet a widower and his two young children in Kansas. Caleb’s Story continues the tale, in which a stranger with a dark secret shows up on their farm when Caleb is a teenager (there’s actually another book between these two, but the library didn’t have it so I haven’t read it yet).

These are sweet stories about family, love, fortitude, and forgiveness. They’re easy reads for young ones, too—Sarah, Plain and Tall was just 58 pages, and Caleb’s Story 116.

White Fur Flying by Patricia MacLachlan. In search of more books for Brianna, I turned to Ambleside Online for suggestions. The Sarah, Plain and Tall series were on that list. When I found them at the library I also swiped several other titles by the same author off the shelf to preview.

In White Fur Flying, a dog-loving family becomes curious about their mysterious new neighbors. The little boy doesn’t speak, and the woman and her husband keep to themselves. It takes the special love of a dog to bring all of them out of their shell so hurts can heal.

Fly Away by Patricia MacLachlan. This may have been my favorite of the MacLachlan titles. A family goes to help their aunt with her farm during a flooding. The eldest child loves writing poetry and wishes she could sing. She has a secret she keeps to herself: her baby brother, Teddy, can sing beautifully. He sings to her every night, and they have a special bond. When Teddy suddenly disappears during the flood, family comes together and secrets are revealed.

Kindred Souls by Patricia MacLachlan. Family love figures prominently as a theme in MacLachlan’s stories and this book is no exception. A boy and his grandfather share a tight bond together. To surprise Billy, the grandfather, the family comes together and builds him a sod house, just like he used to have. As Billy’s health deteriorates, a dog comes into his life and stays with him, keeping him happy.

There was one thing in this book I had to discuss with Bri. In the story, the dog shows up and then after the grandfather’s death it disappears. It is implied/suggested at the end that the dog was an angel. I explained to Bri that the Bible does not say that angels take the form of animals. Might not be the biggest deal, but was something we talked about.

52 Spurgeon Stories for Children Book 1: How a Spider Saved a Man’s Life by Tony Hutter. We finished the first book in this 5-volume series and we’re hooked! These are great, simple devotional readings (two short pages each) that are very interesting and entertaining. He uses each illustration to teach a biblical truth.

We really enjoyed the story about the monster—when Spurgeon is walking home from preaching one night he sees a ghostly apparition.

What does he do?

He attacks it!

Usually Spurgeon wasn’t scared of anything, but this particular evening he really was frightened. He suddenly saw something awful, horrible, terrible! It was like a giant, a monster, with great outstretched arms! Whatever was it?

To find out, you’ll have to read the story for yourself… 😉

What books has your family enjoyed reading aloud together?

 

I’m Playing Chess With Life

I’ll form a plan and see it through,
Make my move on timely cue,
Take stock of assets, route my path,
Prepare to challenge my rival’s craft–
For I’m playing chess with life.

Marble statues, checkered floor,
I know I’ve seen these patterns before–
Black and white like day and night;
I won’t go down without a fight
When I’m playing chess with life.

Checkmate or a draw,
It’s not my opponent’s call,
Not when answers I can find,
Diving in the labyrinth of the mind
While I’m playing chess with life.

Inside out and upside down,
I scan it all from top to ground.
The answer’s here I have no doubt,
I’ll find it quick before I’m out–
‘Cause I’m playing chess with life.

The smart and clever can pull the lever,
Outwit opponent’s sly endeavor.
Just give me data–it’s all I need;
I’ll take control with facile speed–
For I’m playing chess with life.

It all makes sense, it all connects;
Facts and gen esoterically intersect.
Life’s an equation–just work out the figures;
With numbers and logic compute, configure–
I’m playing chess with life.

Clock is ticking, time is twirling,
This blitz has got my mind a’whirling.
Queen takes bishop, pawn, then knight,
All I need is shrewd insight–
While I’m playing chess with life.

Wait! What happened? I didn’t see
The move that swiftly cornered me.
Was sure I’d think my way through this;
“Mind over matter” can never miss–
Not when I’m playing chess with life.

I move my pawn, my desperado;
I can’t fail here in victory’s shadow!
With reasoned logic I’m on the beam;
The match is close now it would seem–
As I’m playing chess with life.

But facts and logic, plans and schemes
Can fall apart like shattered dreams.
I’ve learned a lesson here today:
I’m not the master of my way–
I thought I could play chess with life.

But I’m not the sovereign One who rules it,
Planned it, made it, orders, keeps it.
I must trust the wisdom of this Lord;
So on bended knee I yield my sword…
To the Good King of my life.

*****

“Every way of a man is right in his own eyes: but the Lord pondereth the hearts.” (Proverbs 21:2)

“A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9)

“There are many devices in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand.” (Proverbs 19:21)

“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)

“Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24)

“Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:17)

Dreams

We all have our own plans, dreams and desires.  Especially when we are young.  But we learn very quickly that life never goes exactly according to plan, and we are forced to grapple with realities that do not match our imagined idealisms.  This poem pictures the struggle of accepting disappointment, and learning to gain an eternal perspective as we learn to seek first Christ’s kingdom, rather than our own.

Weaving dreams and making plans,

The ethereal unfolds

In the mind where these stand—

Jewels of desire to behold.

Rich I deem myself to be,

I write my story page by page,

Charmed by lucid fantasy,

And passion of youthful age.

There are no words, and yet,

I know it all, I am so sure;

Dreams of light I’ll not forget,

As though encased in jasper.

On and on the music plays,

The siren song of passion;

Into my future I, smiling, gaze

In such a careless fashion.

Everything is bright and fair,

There is no dreary way,

A frown, a fret, a care—

These things will not play,

Not in my song of songs,

Nor in my visions sweet.

No dissonance or raucous gongs

Will bring desire to defeat.

But then one day—it happens;

From my pleasant dreams I wake.

I sit, awestruck, as passions

A restless roar within me make.

For there they are, my perfect dreams—

Stardust scattered o’er the ground.

The shattered bits flicker and gleam

But to an empty nothingness are bound.

Stepping round the ice cold shards

I survey the dismal scene.

It all came down, this house of cards—

A useless, empty fling.

Then looking up from this cruel turn

To the steel-gray heavens above,

I feel my heart within me burn

And wish for the wings of a dove;

That I might fly above all this—

Beyond the darkness into light

And find a true and steadfast solace,

A rescue from my night.

Pegasus and Scorpius

In their proud courses run;

The glory of great Sirius

Only pales by moon and sun.

Wind and water, waves and sea,

Salty breezes, frozen steppes,

Mighty mountains, ancient trees

And tiny robins in their nests—

All the glorious grandeur here

Of nature flashes through my vision,

As before my eyes appear

Scenes of serenity Elypsian.

Had I the wisdom of the ancients,

The knowledge of Archimedes,

The eloquence of Antony,

Precision of Thucydides…

I could not, with greatest effort

Express the magnitude and beauty

Of the great creation concert

In perfect harmony of key.

Then I ponder, “Who am I?

In all this vast expanse?

Just cells and atoms, nuclei?

Result of random chance?

A speck of nothing on a ball

Flung out in time and space?

Forgotten when I take a fall?

Obscure member of our race?”

No. No I know better.

I have met Him whose name is Truth;

His gift to me is no dead letter—

His Word a comfort from my youth.

This King who made the earth and heaven,

Who rules o’er land and sea,

He stoops so low to reckon

With man His creation…with me.

Not a sparrow falls before Him

But He sees and knows it all.

From His kindness does life stem;

Nothing for His interest is too small.

I am loved and known by Him,

And His promise is to me,

A cup with mercy filled to brim

For all eternity.

Center of the universe I’m not—

That place belongs to Christ.

For mankind’s freedom He has fought,

His sacrifice sufficed.

His kingdom interests are supreme,

They take priority o’er all

Man’s infinitesimal dreams

And plans so trivially small.

He’s working out His purposes

Planned from eternity;

He works all for our good, He says.

In Him we find identity.

Sometimes when all our hopes are dashed

And disappointment all we know,

When plans are swiftly crashed,

And for dreams we get a “No”…

A broken heart may be God’s gift

To raise our eyes to better sights;

The imaginations of our hearts to lift

To much fairer heights.

To break us free from minuscule visions,

To see His bigger scheme;

A greater good to envision,

As we embrace redemptive theme.

As I find comfort in this certainty,

The gray of sky is lifted.

The rays of sun break through to me

And warm my heart uplifted.

Then gather I the stardust bits

Of dreams and plans all broken;

To give an offering that fits,

A sacrifice of love—a token…

To the Lord who lived and died for me,

The God of my eternity.