Thursday, May 11, 2017

Book Log: April 2017

My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them. This is my second year doing this; here is a page containing the 2016 posts (or here is a list of all 2016 books, without the commentary on each one).

The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

16) 4/12: Idols of the Heart: Learning to Long for God Alone by Elyse Fitzpatrick
This was read in spurts since the beginning of the year as part of a weekly women's group. I wanted to like it, but I really struggled to engage with the book; when you look at reviews on Amazon and GoodReads, though, it appears I'm in the minority with my reaction, so I've tried to articulate why it fell flat for me.

First off, it is clear the author loves scholarship - each chapter is filled with numerous footnotes and frequent quotations from other authors. I struggled to find Fitzpatrick's voice, though, and these frequent additions didn't help me.

Second, while time spent in conversation and personal reflection over topics in this book were at times beneficial, it just didn't strike a chord for where my current passions are. Recently, I find myself gravitating to books, both fictional and otherwise, that take up the issue of social justice and tell the histories and stories of people of color. I'm looking outward to learn more and am seeking ways to live out my faith in that direction, so this book just didn't connect with me and where I'm at.

17) 4/20: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
I listened to the Audible book read by Joe Morton, who was phenomenal. I knew nothing before beginning it, but yet again it falls in the category that over a third of my books this year have been in - books that are written about people of color and/or by a person of color.

The narrator seems relatively naive and keeps aligning himself with those who notice his public-speaking prowess and want to harness it for their own gains. Identity is a frequent theme - Who are you? What makes you you? What determines your worth?

18) 4/23: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
This was the April book club selection. I was unfamiliar with the author before encountering this book, but Ayaan has a compelling story. Born in Somalia, spending some time living in Saudi Arabia and Kenya before making her way to Europe, Ayaan has witnessed Islam practiced in varying degrees and considered herself a Muslim for many years, even joining the Muslim Brotherhood. She went through excision (female genital mutilation) and has witnessed and suffered repeated physical violence and was married against her will in a transaction arranged by her father.

After gaining refugee status and then citizenship in The Netherlands, she even rose to serve in parliament. However, she is a divisive individual. She is fiercely against Islam due to the way women are treated in the name of that religion, and her outspoken words about it being a backwards religion that stifles questioning and honors subservience have not gone over well with Muslims. There's a pivotal account of a murder that occurs due to outspoken, polarizing attacks on Islam, but while the victim and circumstances are mentioned in the foreward, I'll keep silent on that topic.

The value of clans and her encounter with refugees fleeing a war-torn country are memorable, as well as many of the topics she discusses. Her resilience is impressive, especially in comparison to others in her family who struggle with mental illness, depression, or just a general malaise. There was no shortage of conversation regarding this book.

I couldn't help but wonder if she saw a limited view of Islam, as I reflected on the Muslim friends I have and their careers and equality within their marriages. Ayaan was a translator in The Netherlands, so she interacted with Somali Muslims regularly in extreme circumstances (hospitals and jails, for starters) with people who didn't assimilate by learning Dutch; instead they continued with their own traditions in isolation and privately schooled their children, but there certainly must have been progressive Muslims who don't hold the same fundamentalist views, just as within Christianity (or, really, any religion) you can find a spectrum of how people practice their faith and incorporate it into their lives.

19) 4/29: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Green Bay held the inaugural UntitledTown: Book and Author Festival at the end of April. There were many talks and workshops I would have loved to have attended, but some previous commitments kept me from all but the two capstone speakers: Sherman Alexie and Margaret Atwood.

I hadn't read the work of either of them, and with The Handmaid's Tale getting plenty of mention lately, I decided I'd get ahold of a copy and read it in advance of the author talk.

The setting is America in the near future, a dystopian view of what it could look like if religion was used as a control and as propaganda. The biblical account of Hagar being a surrogate has become a foundation for how society's reproduction takes place - a few select women are handmaids, and there are controlled rituals surrounding conception, birth, etc.

I found the first section of the book difficult to get through as I tried to understand the society and make sense of the narrator's stream of consciousness (she jumps around in time, often recounting events before the coup in the midst of her new life). I recognized the deliberateness of that, though. When reading and education aren't allowed and each action severely controlled, you're forced to live inside your head. Momentum builds as the story progresses, and I found myself anxious, thinking there were many ways it could go wrong, but I wasn't sure which (if any) would be the chosen vehicle.

It was an interesting read, but some people find this too dark and disturbing to get through. I also enjoyed hearing Atwood speak (and the surprise puppet show she held). She revealed that she did nothing in the book that hadn't already been done in some way in history. And, as is oft repeated, her desire is that the events of the book remain fiction, contained between the covers, and not a prophetic vision of what will happen.