20 Reading Questions

So I am very, very tired (I have a 3 year old, an 18 month old, and I am in my first trimester, you see) but I wanted to write something today so I decided to do a bit of a more straightforward post. I saw this “20 Reading Questions” meme on twitter, and I genuinely enjoyed reading people’s answers, so I thought I’d do it.
I do not know the source of the meme. I tried to find it, but saw no links, just the meme.
Here goes!
  1. Favorite genre to read: On the fiction side, usually fantasy. On the non-fiction, essays and apologetics.
  2. Current book you’re reading: Ah, several. A Gentleman in Moscow. The Tragedy of the Assyrian Minority in Iraq. (Re-reading) The Outlaws of Sherwood. Pensees.
  3. First book you remember loving: Either Mara Daughter of the Nile, or The Horse’s Boy.
  4. A book/series you wish would be adapted to film: Not sure. I think maybe Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons might be a fun one with that clever mixture of pragmatic British-like tone, plus dragons and intrigue. I’ve only read the first one though.
  5. Favorite protagonist: Orual from Till We Have Faces.
  6. Favorite antagonist: Could I say Orual again…? Um, maybe the Sherif in Parke Godwin’s Sherwood. He kind of typifies the intelligent, slightly tortured, sympathetic villain that I like, but who is still very much the villain, and never “turns good.”
  7. Do you write any stories? Yes, as might be evident by any perusal of this blog, I suppose (fantasy, essays, apologetics, historical fiction).
  8. A movie that you think was better than the book: I didn’t read all three Hunger Games books, because I didn’t really like the first one very much. But I thought some of the movies were excellent.
  9. Best book you’ve read this year: Probably Chaim Potok’s In the Beginning. It’s not my favorite of his, but it is still very, very good.
  10. One of your favorite authors: C.S. Lewis (but then also Robin McKinley, G.K. Chesterton, and Chaim Potok)
  11. Least favorite genre to read: I will never read horror. Ever. Or erotica. Also don’t like grimdark a whole lot. It wears on me right quick.
  12. A book you’d recommend to a friend: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. I feel like I could recommend it to just about anybody, regardless of their taste. And The Abolition of Man, though that one requires a bit more perseverance and an interest in philosophy/theology. Also, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Oh, and The Ugly American.
  13. Favorite film adaptation of a book: Probably the original Canadian Anne of Green Gable movies. I love those so much.
  14. Book you’ve read the most times: The Abolition of Man, Mara Daughter of the Nile, The Blue Sword, the Bible.
  15. A book you didn’t expect to like: I wouldn’t say that I ever started reading a book thinking “I’m not going to like this,” BUT I did start reading The Brothers Karamazov with far more of a sense of duty than desire, if that counts.
  16. Favorite classic book: Either Persuasion or Jane Eyre. Or Ivanhoe.
  17. Book that impacted you the most: Till We Have Faces (Lewis) and The Promise (Potok).
  18. If you could meet one author, living  or dead, who would it be? C.S. Lewis
  19. An author you think more people should know about: I mean it’s not like he’s unknown, but I think more people should read Chaim Potok’s books. He has this uncanny ability to evoke the deepest emotions without seeming to use any emotional language whatsoever, or even being overt about the subject matter. His themes are always woven throughout so subtly that you almost wonder if he even meant to put them in there, and his metaphors seem almost accidental while yet stunning.
  20. Favorite book/series of all time: I can’t pick just one. Lewis’ Space Trilogy (particularly Perelandra) and Pilgrim’s Regress and The Weight of Glory. Anne of Green Gables (esp. Anne of the Island), G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics. Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword.
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Philosophy in Fantasy

Fantasy novels almost always come with some philosophy mixed in. Sometimes it’s just as light as two cloves of garlic in the dish, because that taste was never meant to be the star…sometimes it’s as pungent as thoum. Thoum is made of nothing but raw garlic, oil, lemon and salt. It will clear out your sinuses, and your mouth will be very, very happy.
But one way or the other, the garlic is going in there.
There are a few reasons for this:
  1. The whole point of speculative fiction is speculation, right? Of course we usually think of “speculation” in regards to practical matters, historical divergences, and magical or technological “what-ifs,” but what this inevitably does is force us to reckon with timeless truths and meaningful questions that ground us when we’re on these flights of wild fancy, things that can apply to real life, or at least reflect real experience.
  2. Fantasy tends towards fighting, lets be honest. It needn’t, but it often does. Battles of swords, battles of wits, battles of morals. If there is fighting we can’t help but ask what we’re fighting for, and how we’re affected by it. If wits, we examine the intellect, its use and misuse. If morals, we are required to define them, and interrogate them. I don’t think writers do this on purpose. I think we do it instinctively. If life is on the line, we being to think about the meaning of life. Otherwise it doesn’t matter.
  3. Writers are usually pretty thinky, I’d guess. When you go off and create worlds on your morning commute, or while you’re in the shower, it generally means you’re thinking about other stuff too. Life. Purpose. Hope. Cynicism. Faith. Family. Trauma. Politics. Truth. Culture. I mean, most people do this, but writers often are in overdrive, and that’s why it spills over on the page. What’s going on in your life, your struggles, your doubts, your fears, your desires, your epiphanies…they’re all going in there, whether you meant them too or not.
  4. Lastly sometimes a writer straight-up has an agenda. This is the trickiest. It can make for the best and worst works. Fantasy offers a wide-open, manipulable field in which to lay out one’s philosophy/worldview/agenda with a degree of streamlined clarification that the real world rarely offers. Allegorical fantasies can obviously be of this variety and they can be very good or plain horrid. Basically if the author had a particular “message” from the beginning, as opposed conveying one inadvertently, then philosophy will likely be the most intense flavor of the work.
So that’s why we do it, but I’m going to go ahead and admit the fact that it rarely works for me. I imagine some might take offense to what I’m about to say, but I hope that it can be taken in good faith. Most of the time, I find philosophy in fantasy very, very silly and shallow. This isn’t because I don’t like philosophy in fantasy–or underlying messages, or deep thoughts–on the contrary, I LOVE all that.
But here’s the deal: what might seem like a brilliant philosophical epiphany to me, might come across as painfully, even stupidly obvious to you or to someone else, or vice versa. This is because we are not all operating on the same philosophical, spiritual, or religious parameters (because, let’s be honest, philosophy is either ancillary to or a more nebulous substitute for religion).
Because of this, a very intelligent author may include a beautifully written treatise on death and suffering in his novel, but because I am a person of faith, and I hold very certain beliefs about death and suffering (moreover have very certain experiences relating to death) much of what the author says may seem shallow and trite to me, however strong his prose, or however fair and genuine his thoughts.
We are not all on the Same Page (Religion as Example)
I am not saying, however, that simply because I (or others) am religious and perhaps you (or others) are not, that I find what you have to say (philosophically) to be stupid. Perhaps what I have to say sounds to you like a platitude, or an oversimplification, or something you’ve heard before and long since rejected as invalid. Nevertheless, here we are. If we do not share the same ground–that core of our worldview–our most impassioned scene of life-explaining dialogue may come across as silly and flat, or shallow, or over-simple, or over-complex.
If one’s philosophical foundations are deeply rooted in Judaism or Christianity, in Heschel and the Rambam or Lewis, Augustine and Chesterton, one may not have much internal tolerance for a philosophy rooted in Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, Richard Dawkins, or Marx. That is dealing in extremes, of course, and there are many worldviews and many overlaps besides, but I think you get my point. I am using religion as an example because it applies to me, so I am comfortable talking about it, and also because it can create pretty sharp delineations between resulting convictions or lack thereof.
Without known or shared parameters–basically without resonance–a long philosophical musing in the mouth of a fantasy character can come across as silly, amateurish. Obviously most people think about the biggies–life, death, meaning, purpose, right and wrong, justice, mercy, hope, faith, love–at some point or another. But Religion inherently addresses and collates all these things into a narrative, implying a through-line, solidity, and purpose. We are all prone to think about the meaning of life, but none of us are required to do so. Religion necessitates it in a very specific way, and most religions are not satisfied with loose ends, grey areas, or deep uncertainties in the way agnostic or atheistic philosophies are.
Religion says there IS such-and-such and it DOES signify thus-and-so, and DEMANDS of us this-and that. Doubts and unknowns still exist, naturally, but they are on the periphery; the core is faith, aka “belief in what is not seen, certainty, conviction in the face of doubt.”
All that to say…If you or your character are going in the opposite direction–walking away from a certain belief into doubt or an absence of clarity regarding things they thought they knew–then it will resonate with some, but will miss others. You may find your character’s doubts to be purposeful and courageous–and maybe they are!–or maybe they are not. That is a hard call to make, but perhaps I find them to be cowardly or weak in any case. And, again, I may think that my character’s firm conviction and compassion in the face of horrible suffering to be beautiful and powerful–you may find it unrealistic and cheesy.
I love the show This is Us (LOVE) and not only does it make me cry, I’m pregnant right now, so it makes me double cry. (THE DOJO SCENE. I can never stop thinking about that scene) But Kevin’s speech to Tess and Annie about his abstract painting, the speech from which the show derives its name–oh, the vagueness of it…so generic to me…probably the LEAST emotionally resonant scene in the whole show for me. And I know for a fact that it deeply touched others, so…make of that what you will.
I can see that I’m repeating myself now, so I’ll wrap it up. A common foundation, common belief, makes for resonance. The farther we are from one another in beliefs, the more ridiculous that Broken Warrior’s grand speech is going to sound to us, the greater the eye-roll, the sharper the emotional disconnect.
On a Mission
Lastly, I mentioned works in which the author is overtly proselytizing. They have a VERY specific philosophy or agenda they are trying to get across, and there’s no mistaking it. Now we don’t need to agree on the philosophy to acknowledge that the work is well-written or beautiful. But it must be recognized that when our beliefs are front and center, the reader’s reaction will be as wildly diverging as it would be if you were handing out a gospel tract, or a communist manifesto. And even if we can see that the work is well made, we might still kinda hate it because it feels like propaganda to us–and well-made propaganda, no less! If you feel like someone is basically lying, but you know they passionately believe it, and they are communicating it well? That probably isn’t going to be very enjoyable.
None of this is to discourage the infusion of philosophy in SFF works, obviously. Stuff and nonsense. I still love it. I think we all do. We just have to realize that sometimes the wires are cut, and we cannot connect to or hear one another across the philosophical distance. The greatest works can reach across divides of belief, but even in that I must confess that I think they only do that when they reach a core we can agree on, even if is only one single bare point of connection, the one resonant strike on a real true foundation.
And perhaps that last sentence meant much or nothing to you, because it comes from my convictions, and we may not have those in common.

Currently Reading

Thanks to my project-loving husband, I now have a literal ‘currently reading shelf.’ He was feeling antsy, and desperate for a project for which no materials would need to be purchased. Thankfully we had 3 little wood crates left over from the shoe-storage solution he built a year ago. From them he made a lovely little shelf that perfectly tucks in the corner of the kitchen, next to where I usually sit at the table. In the shelves I have all the books I want to try and get through this year, and stacked on top are all the ones I’m actively reading.
The stack is a bit chaotic, because I have a hard time keeping it to two or three books at a time.
So right now I am reading:
Pensees, by Blaise Pascal (I don’t know how to add the accent on the second e…): I was reading this a while ago, and lost my copy, got another copy, then stopped 90 pages in, then long after, found the old copy. Now I’m finishing it up. A lot of scattered thoughts on faith, God, and reason, by one of history’s great scientists.
Al-Fitna, by Kanan Makiya: I started this one a few months ago, but kind of took a break on it. Fiction set in Iraq between 2003 and 2006, with the hanging of Saddam as a thematic center. It’s in Arabic, so it will be a slower read for me, but I like it so far.
Iraqi Society: A Psycho-sociological Analysis of What Happened and What’s Happening, by Qassem Hussein Saleh: A collection of essays about Iraqi social experience, culture, and the like. I’m over halfway through this one. It’s also in Arabic, though, so again…more of a bit-by-bit read for me.
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles: A story of a Count sequestered in a hotel in Moscow in 1922, and various goings-on therein. My mom read it and enjoyed it immensely, so I decided to give it a go.
Fighting Back: British Jewry’s Military Contribution in the Second World War, by Martin Sugarman: This book is for research. Understandably, there are a lot of books about World War 2, and a lot about the Holocaust, but comparatively few about Jewish military contributions in particular, from those who were free citizens in Europe, or from countries where there was comparatively less prejudice against Jews. This is chock-full of broad history and individual stories.
The Tragedy of the Assyrian Minority in Iraq, by R.S. Stafford: Also a research book, but an odd duck of one. It’s written by a British officer, and it was written in the 1930s not long after the Simele massacre in which many Assyrians were killed and driven out by the Iraqi Army. The thing is, there’s a mix of interesting history and information in here but it is from a decidedly British Colonialist lens, so everything has to be taken with that in mind. There is compassion here, but also condescension, so it just has to be taken as what it is: a historical document rooted in a certain time and perspective.
So looking at this list makes me feel like I need to balance this out with some more fun and fiction. Its quite a serious list, which I did not do on purpose. I have some nice SFF books on my literal ‘to-read’ shelf, so those will be prioritized when one of the above is finished.
I have The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Shadowscale by Rachel Hartman, and Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn. And a few historical fictions and one contemporary fiction. Any of those will do to balance it out!

On Tropes and Subversions Thereof

In case it isn’t already obvious, I like to analyze tropes. Whether or not I do it effectively is another question altogether, but I am fascinated by what draws certain people to certain tropes. What makes one person roll their eyes, stirs deeply the heart of another. What makes me shrug, might make you swoon. What makes her giggle might make me wince.
Yet some tropes are relatively universal. Maybe not everyone likes them, but enough people do that a given trope could endure in a hundred movies, a thousand songs, and a hundred thousand books, and people would still seek it out. However, because some tropes are that beloved–seemingly too common and also ofttimes sloppily executed–we can grow weary even of that which we love. Not just one person rolls their eyes now, but everybody.
Enter the trope subversion. The supposed magical cure for an overused trope (or is it…). “The Princess saves herself!” “The kiss does not wake the sleeper.” “The dragon is actually friendly.”
An easy example of this, if a rather too heavy-handed one, is found in the movie Frozen. The young princess “falls in love” with a stereotypical love-interest over the course of one single rather obnoxious song. (I am not a huge fan of Frozen, sorry). In the end it is not this “love interest” OR the second love interest whose kiss saves the day, but that of her sister. Disney lampshades the insta-love story, then subverts the only-her-one-true-love-can-save-her trope. All well and good.
I use this example because it is pretty over the top and as such is a pretty stark example both of a subversion and the following truth: subverting a trope doesn’t inherently equal a good story. It can, of course. But so can using a standard trope. Subversion does not indicate quality. It is, in and of itself, perfectly neutral.
Now I know a lot of people love Frozen, and that’s fine. One of my nieces has spent many a day dressed up as Elsa. I don’t think the story’s bad, and the fact that one sister saves the other with love is actually quite sweet. I’m fine with that. But when the main (and, in some other cases, only) praise of a story is the fact that it subverted a trope, we must realize that we have in fact said not one word about the quality or truth or richness or depth of the story. We have merely stated the equivalent of “this story has a tree in it.” It’s nice if you like trees, but its not very informative as to whether those trees are effectively or meaningfully integrated into the story.
That being said, I understand why someone might pitch a story as a subversion, not as an indicator of quality, but as a warning that ‘this isn’t going to go the way you think.’ “500 Days of Summer” did this well. The movie tells you explicitly that this story isn’t going to end in romantic bliss. They’re not going to work it all out in a sweeping romantic gesture during the last 10 minutes of the movie. Side note, I don’t really like that movie at all. I don’t really like the premise of spending an hour and a half investing in two people, only for the whole purpose of the story to be “and then they went their separate ways, no harm, no foul.”
Maybe it spoke deeply to someone else about experiences they had, about moving on or something, but it seemed rather soulless to me, and I would never watch it again of my own free will.
The truth is, a subverted trope usually leads to a known trope whether you want it to or not. Contrary to what some may think, tropes do not exist because of narrative laziness (though they can surely be executed with it, same as anything), but because of resonance. A certain trope strikes a note that pings back from your soul with deepened sound, resonating with something that was already present, enriching some soil that was already there. We can learn new things from old tropes, again and again.
Robin McKinley wrote The Blue Sword because of some book she read where a woman was capture by the “Natives” and there was a sort of “captor-captive” romance happening, and then the captor-guy turned out to be from the woman’s same nationality (“non-native”) anyway. She was very disgusted with the whole thing. The way this  trope of the well-bred lady being capture by locals and then romanced was executed was appalling because it was done so badly, with such little reason and (I suspect) so little respect, knowledge, or desire to challenge assumptions.
So she decided to write a book where all of that was essentially reversed. The locals are the heroes rather than the antagonists, and the psuedo-British-Colonial lady that gets captured by them? Well it turns out that she’s one of them, though she didn’t know that it was her heritage. From there it becomes a classic adventure story with some romance lightly sprinkled in. Now I love this book, but I can still admit it’s not perfect, and she still fell into some of the traps she was explicitly trying to avoid (It’s not technically a white savior narrative, because Harry’s Grandmother was Damarian, but it’s still tends a bit that way). But, for the most part, she took the good of the trope–the idea of being brought into a world you do not know against your will, and being forced to learn, adapt, and to respect that which is very different from what you’re used to, of being humbled by others and by circumstances, and of finding a home where you did not expect to find it–and sloughed off much of the bad.
And she ended up writing a very classical story of a heroic chosen one who had magic she never knew about.
Tropes are like flavors. Our tongues are ready made with certain taste-buds, like little pockets ready to receive specific tastes. We all have different palettes, no doubt, and experimentation with flavors is a wonderful thing. But at the end of the day, most people have a space on their tongues for “salty” and “tangy” and “sweet” and the like. And when that salt hits your tongue, you revel in it, because it was just what you wanted. And it doesn’t matter that it has thrilled a million tongues before, and will do so a million times again. It satisfies.
So, I guess, all I’m saying is, you may need to gargle vinegar once in a while for your health, or chew a piece of pickled ginger to refresh your palette, and you may be a straight up foodie (hear, hear!) and want to try all manner of strange concoctions–but that’s no reason to look down on the fact that sometimes our tongues simply crave salt, sweet, and sour, and we never really move on from those, while so many other fun experiments may be enjoyed, but quickly forgotten.

 

The Everlasting Trope: The “Crew”

Ah, the “Crew.” Think The Magnificent Seven or The Seven Samurai. Or Firefly. Ocean’s 11. Take your pick. I know there are a few more recent fantasy-type novels which feature this trope. The rag-tag band. A motley crew. A found family of misfits. So on and so forth.
This trope is very hit-or-miss for me and I think this stands to reason: you either like the crew…or you don’t. Since this trope deals heavily in multiple character dynamics, it requires a certain finesse to pull off. Because you’re usually dealing with a bigger roster of main characters, there’s that many more ways it can go wrong.
When it doesn’t Work
-This one’s pretty obvious. If all you have are underdeveloped characters, the whole thing will fall flat, no matter how awesome the heist (’cause it is usually a heist). This most commonly manifests as the “one-trait folly.” Each character is provided with one defining trait–“the mean one,” “the quiet one,” “the one who is in love with his weapon”–and we get constant call-backs to that one thing, but NOTHING ELSE. It starts to feel like everyone should just be wearing a name-tag with that one trait on it. Rarely does a book or a movie go quite that flat in characterization, but if you have to remind yourself who’s who when the action is flurrying, something got missed.
-when half the “crew” seems tacked-on. This is when there are 3 or 4 characters the author actually cares about, but that hardly constitutes a full crew, so they throw in another 4 or 5…but they just feel like excess baggage. All their banter feels awkward and forced, and they constantly have to pop their head in just to remind us that they’re there. Maybe this “excess” person is technically the best codebreaker…but for some reason it’s always one of the 3 or 4 main protagonists that end up doing everything anyway, leaving extra guy with nothing to do but nod as his expertise is made irrelevant.
-When a central romance dominates to the point that it creates unnatural character dynamics. Everything is reorganized, shoved, blunted, shifted for the romance. Unless it is literally a Romance novel (and sometimes even then!) this can ruin a thing. This is not an indictment against romance itself, mind you.
Simply take the example of some Classic Romantic Comedies (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry met Sally, While You Were Sleeping, The Philadelphia Story) and then attempt to find a truly enduring Romantic Comedy from the last 10 years. Not too many, right? I have tried to analyze this phenomenon of the lack of really high quality Romantic Comedies in recent years, and I have identified two or three factors, one of which is side characters. The side characters in the older movies were really vivid. They were present, involved, hilarious, and enriching. They had their own insights and ideas. They existed not only to prove that the world consisted of more than these two central people, but that real relationships outside the romance itself matter and are a vital part of life.
If the whole structure of the crew is built awkwardly and inexplicably around a central romance, it ruins the family-feeling of the crew, demotes the remaining characters to window-dressing, and makes the romance itself boring because it’s all one channel, all the time.
-Too many Han Solos. Han Solo is awesome. I love Han Solo. But not everybody can be Han Solo. We need diversity of personality. This is a subtle temptation, because crews are usually doing capers or heists or whatever, and that usually implies roguish personalities. But if EVERYBODY is Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds, it’s boring.
Truth told, I haven’t actually seen this particular flaw very much. We recognize pretty quick that a crew begs diversity of personality.
And on that note:
When it Does Work/Why We Love It
-Diversity of personality. The wide range of interesting characters gives everyone someone to identify with–at least to some degree–or root for. Well done, the crew story offers a dazzling feast of characters and we get to watch them grow, act, and develop right before our eyes.
-Surface simplification, with hidden depths. This acts as a counter to the one-trait problem. Yes, at first, we have “The mean one,” “The weapons expert,” “The scholar,” and “The one we know nothing about.” We basically get character cards to start, and then we slowly get to discover what they are outside their area of expertise. Nuance unfolds. Every new tidbit about their background or personality becomes a delicious morsel.
-Character dynamics. The way those two banter, the way he acts like a brother to her, the way she holds back around him, the way he plays it close to the chest with that other guy, almost as if he doesn’t trust him. Once we are invested, every single drop of dialogue from our favorite characters becomes a thrill. Subtle nods make us feel welcomed into the found family, and silences speak loudly. If the character dynamics are good, we don’t even care what the heist is! It’s just a medium for interaction between people we have come to love.
-HOWEVER, there usually is a fun objective, heist, goal, whatever. And we like that too, because we like to see everything come together, everyone’s strengths utilized, and the close bond they have compensates for their individual weaknesses.
-Sometimes the crew has been together for a long time, sometimes they are brought together before our eyes. It can be really enjoyable to watch the transition from “I’m just in it for the money” to “You are my brother and I will die for you!” I see this one done badly a lot. One minute the crew was gathered and everyone was passing out name tags along with areas of expertise, and after a mild run-in with a low level goon, somebody says “we’re a family now.”
If you don’t show your work, that isn’t going to fly.
On the other hand, if the crew has been together for a long time, it can be a joy to catch subtle hints of past experiences, of all the little things we don’t yet know about what brought them together.
In Conclusion:
The “Crew” trope feeds our love for variety, for family, for adventure, for a shared goal. It stokes a desire for intimate friendships where, at a word or a glance, one knows exactly what is going on in the others’ head, or exactly what to do, where to go, how to execute. We love to see everything (or, more importantly, everyone) come together just so. And since “Crew” stories nearly always have heists, they are often just plain fun. Puzzleboxes made of people for us to try and figure out.

To-Read 2018

This is not a comprehensive list, but just a smattering of the things I am going to try to prioritize this year:
Middlemarch, George Eliot: Last year’s “Big Book” was The Brothers Karamazov. This year I will endeavor to make it through this behemoth. I know precious little about it, other than that the author used a pen name because she wanted her work to be taken seriously, and it is something of a character study. It was written in the 1860s, but set in the 1830s.
Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville: A classic I have never read, yet I keep hearing that it speaks with great relevance to our present time. Published in the 1830’s by a Frenchmen seeking to understand the nature of politics and Democracy in the United States.
Iraq in Turmoil: Historical Perspectives of Dr. Ali Al-Wardi from the Ottoman Empire to King Feisal: A collection of writings by a famous Iraqi historian edited by Commander Youssef Aboul-Enein and compiled with respect to relevance in current-day Iraq.
Some Wendell Berry (Per a friend’s suggestion): I have a book of his collected poems. I have never read anything by him, but jus sampling a few random poems has convinced me to give him a try.
Horse Soldiers, Dough Stanton: This was suggested this to me quite a while ago, and I just found out that this story of SF soldiers in Afghanistan is being made into a movie. As the title suggests, they used horses due to the nature of the terrain in Afghanistan. This book accounts for several of their encounters with the Taliban, and their campaign in the Mazar-i-Sharif area.
Cities of Salt, Abdel Rahman Munif: About what happens when oil is discovered in a fictitious Middle-Eastern country, and–as I understand it–a takedown of both Western and Arab ways of handling such a situation. Let’s put it this way, this book is banned in Saudi Arabia, the country which is the target of its critique. This is a modern Arabic Classic that I would frankly rather read in Arabic, but I have a copy in English and…well…I am a slow reader in Arabic, and I already started a different novel in Arabic and will be very satisfied to make it through that one. Speaking of which:
الفتنة, كنعان مكية (In English: The Rope, Kanan Makiya): I’m 30 or so pages into this one, but I am a slow reader in Arabic, so I’m expecting it will take me a while. The book begins with the execution of Saddam Hussein in 2006, but covers both the brutality of life under Saddam, as well as the turmoil of the recent Iraq war. Set primarily between 2003 and 2006, as I understand.
Paradise Lost, John Milton: I read the other day that Milton was blind (I did not know that) and dictated Paradise Lost. The nature of such genius astounded me (he had all that meter and all that poetry FORMED IN HIS MIND). I mentioned this out loud to my sister and she suggested we both tackle it this year. Here we go!
So those are a few of the things I hope to read this year, but there are many others, and if I’m making good progress, I’ll update on my to-read plans throughout the year! Merry reading!

 

 

2017 in Books

This year ended up being one of excitingly diverse reading: almost every genre! Books written hundreds of years apart! It looks almost erratic as I examine my goodreads, but I enjoyed the vast majority of what I read, and [it seems] made my goal. It was a very moderate goal, but I have two kids under the age of three, so I’m calling it good.
(Forgive if the genre categorization is a bit off. It’s not my strength)
Without further ado, the books of 2017
Sci-fi/Fantasy
Wolf by Wolf, by Ryan Graudin: Technically an alternate history/dystopia in which Germany won, and a Holocaust survivor can alter her physical appearance at will as a result of experimentation. She enters a motorcycle race for a chance to kill Hitler. I liked it okay, but note that it is lighter fare, despite the heavy subject matter.
The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner: Um…it was okay for me. Lost me towards the end and I had to fight not to skim. I don’t read a lot of mid-grade, and I found the world-building lovely, but the general tone of the story dull. I was surprised, as it is much beloved by many.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley: Classic dystopian novel. Really enjoyed it in the sense that “wow this is horrifying and accurate to trends in our society.” Immediate satisfaction of all desires, shallow discourse, extreme fear of intellectual complexity or diversity. Sex as simultaneously horribly degraded and elevated as a deity. Likewise replacing religion with “society” and sensation as god. There were some things I disliked, namely the weird, shallow, and frankly confusing portrayal of Native Americans. Otherwise, excellent.
Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis: A re-read. Excellent philosophy-and-theology-laden Sci-fi. Read it out loud to my husband, and he liked it too.
Perelandra, by C.S. Lewis: Another re-read, and an even more powerfully theological Sci-Fi book. Also, my favorite world ever built. I long to go to Perelandra as Lewis writes it.
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik: A lovely, atmospheric fantasy, about a corrupting evil forest, and those who fight it. A story full of striking metaphors…though slightly marred by a needless and uniquely unromantic sex scene. Enjoyable enough that I will be reading Novik’s upcoming Spinning Silver, though, an unrelated but similarly styled fairy-tale fantasy.
A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan: A more formal, Victorian-England-flavored fantasy featuring the memoir of a young aristocratic woman who develops a scientific interest in Dragons, and who later becomes a famous dragon naturalist. I liked it a reasonable amount. I plan to read the next.
Literary or Contemporary
Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel: this book was very well written, but I strongly disliked it. I expound a bit on why here.
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson: A calm, rich narrative of an elderly pastor knowing he will die soon, who wants to pass wisdom on to his son. Lovely, lovely, lovely. In the top two of the year.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: About immigration experiences, and non-American black experiences (specifically Nigerian). I found this book well-written, very interesting, and I am glad I read it, but I can’t quite say I liked it because both the protagonists…well, they troubled me deeply, not just due to ALL THE INFIDELITY, but also their utter indifference to its wrongness and effects (particularly Ifemelu’s indifference, though Obinze was no angel). So, lots of intriguing insights, and moments creating intense empathy, but morally just…awful. Any book that excuses infidelity within the narrative by either One True Love philosophy, or mere ennui, cannot get my recommendation, no matter how it might have otherwise deserved it.
Dear Martin, by Nic Stone: A novel about a boy who is racially profiled and mistreated by a cop, and tries to deal with his experiences of racism through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy. While that framework is not as deeply utilized as I would have liked, I think this book does a good job of examining contemporary race issues through one young man’s personal experience.
Non-fiction/History
The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad: A narrative non-fiction about one Afghani family. Written by a journalist who lived with that family for a time. Very informative and generally well-written, but often infuriating…one gets the sense of the author’s condescension and contempt from time to time, and it mars the reader’s intimacy and empathy.
In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson: Narrative non-fiction about the US Ambassador to Germany–himself an unlikely candidate for the position–covering the year 1933-1934. Very informative about US and German attitudes at the time. I know far more than I would like about his daughter’s love life, but was still a very good read.
Republic of Fear, by Kanan Makiya: About the Ba’ath party’s rise, consolidation of power, and methods of control and intimidation. Excellent. A slower, more academic read, but well worth it. Highly recommended for anyone interested in modern Iraqi history.
Iraq’s Last Jews: Stories of Daily Life, Upheaval, and Escape from Modern Babylon, edited by Tamar Morad, Dennis Shasha, and Robert Shasha: A collection of oral histories documenting the persecution and flight of the 2500 year old Jewish community of Iraq. Devastating to read, seeing such an ancient and rich community utterly uprooted in a scant handful of decades.
Historical Fiction
The Slave, by Isaac Bashevis Singer: About a Jewish man’s sojourn as a slave in a 17th century Polish village, his relationship with a gentile woman, and his wrestling with his faith under circumstances of great sorrow and duress. Full of Jewish and Polish history and mythology. Recommended.
Old Men at Midnight, by Chaim Potok: Three stories relating to Jewish history, linked only by a woman named Davita, who herself is given scant and erratic characterization. The stories are very powerful, although the third one dips slightly into a different genre than the other two, and leaves some confusion. Regardless, I still recommend it, especially for The War Doctor section, and the scene about the boy preparing the reading passage for his Bar Mitzvah
The Promise, by Chaim Potok: The Promise is the follow-up to Potok’s more famous The Chosen, and while I like The Chosen, The Promise was one of the most powerful books I have ever read. It deals quietly with the collective trauma of the Holocaust and questions how to see the future of Judaism (I wrote a tiny bit about it here). I had to set the book down occasionally just to breathe and process. A painful, beautiful book.
Mara Daughter of the Nile, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw: An ancient Egyptian drama I first read when I was about twelve or thirteen. It is suited to that age, but I love it still. More details in this review.
Memoir
A Long Way Gone, by Ishamel Beah: a memoir of a child soldier from Sierra Leone. Depressing to read, but needful to hear.
Saddam’s Secrets, by Georges Sada: An Assyrian Iraqi General’s account of his years serving under Saddam Hussein. He has a very plain, personable, chatting-over-coffee way of writing and while not much of what he writes is unknown information, it is still a worthwhile read for one man’s perspective and experience of living in a very precarious position.
Surprised by Joy, by C.S. Lewis: A re-read. One of my all time favorite books, and a great companion to Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress. An account of Lewis’ spiritual and intellectual journey up to the point of his conversion to Christianity.
Refusenik, by Mark Ya Azbel: Excellent memoir of a Jewish scientist in the Soviet Union who applied to immigrate to Israel but for many years was refused (hence refusenik), giving a thorough account of the prejudices and stifled intellectual atmosphere of even the “freer” times in the USSR, of anti-semitism cloaked as “anti-zionism,” of incredible endurance and moral fortitude. Definitely recommended.
 Essays/Theology
Eugenics and Other Evils, by GK Chesterton: I have discovered that I love Chesterton’s essays and such far more than any of his fiction. It is easy to discuss Eugenics as evil now that we have seen where it can lead (the Nazis were big fans and, incidentally, some modern European nations have implemented certain fundamental Nazi goals with a quiet fervor) but Chesterton–who certainly has his flaws–was ahead of his time in this. He saw the terrible danger of a government and society that could collectively decide whose life was worth living without their own input.
Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, by C.S. Lewis: Does what is says on the tin and, since it’s Lewis, does it well. More questions than answers, though, which is atypical.
On Stories, by C.S. Lewis: Lovely collection of essays on writing, youth fiction, SFF, and literature in general. Wrote a bit about it here.
Heretics, by GK Chesterton: A re-read. Essays critiquing the philosophies of various authors, thinkers, and public figures. Mostly Chesterton’s contemporaries. Excellent.
Classics
The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: My first Great Russian Novel. It was daunting, and took a while to get through, but I am glad I read it. I don’t actually like Dostoyevsky’s writing style, which is tedious and rambling, but not at all beautiful. It is his explorations of human nature and folly and his intertwining of theological struggles that draw readers to him, not his prose, I imagine. (Perhaps the former’s a matter of translation?). I’ve heard tell it’s better to start with Crime and Punishment, which shall be my next.
Persuasion, by Jane Austen: A re-read of my favorite Austen. It is still good, in case you’re wondering. It is the most mature romance, and has excellent tension, and is an ode to the constant and long-suffering character.
My Antonia, by Willa Cather: Beautiful, atmospheric prose, really offering a visceral feel of Nebraska prairie life. Somewhat an account of immigrant experience as well. I liked it well enough to recommend it, though it’s not topping my lists. A few really gorgeous, moving scenes make it quite worth it.
Conclusions
30 books total (not a lot, but I feel pretty good about it!) 6 of this year’s books were re-reads, which I count an accomplishment. One of the hallmarks of a good book is that it’s one you want to read again, so I do not want to neglect those. I read books that came out this year, and books that were published a hundred or two hundred years ago. I read books that were “not my thing” and books that were my old, cozy stand-bys. I read books about contemporary issues, and books about historical issues that felt quite relevant to the present. I feel tremendously grateful for the opportunity to read all these books! A good book year, to be sure.