Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Books for December 2012

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter #3)Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot that I like about this one, and I appreciate that the editing kept the writing tighter here (which, as I recall, is less and less the case after this part of the series). Also there are a lot of key elements to the overall story introduced here: Sirius Black, the Marauder’s Map, Cho Chang, the Patronus… good work is done in laying the foundation for the rest of the story arc.

One thing about this one that bugs me is how there are several times when a certain tidiness makes the book less enjoyable: the “perfect day” of the Quiddich match, for example, or how easily and readily Ron and Hermione reconcile after such a long dispute. While it feels a little silly to say this about a fantasy novel, the plausibility is threatened, I think, by these too-easy moments.

We’re going to take a break with Jack for a while on the series. Marcie and I agree that, after #3, the degree and intensity of the darker elements of the story increases substantially; I’m not sure he is ready for that.

The Wide Window (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #3)The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another in the series that I’ve been reading to Molly. This one, even more than the rest, left a sense of the tension that not everything has a happy ending, not everything wraps up nicely by the end of the book. Because of this, I find that this series is increasingly valuable to read to her (and Jack, when he sits in on them): it teaches the reality of life’s complexity in a helpful and kid-friendly way.

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural FormationDesiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K.A. Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Usually there is a single book (very occasionally two) that rises to the top of the list of most significant books I’ve read in the past year; in 2011 it was James Davidson Hunter's To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. In 2012, it was definitely this book.

The insights and value I took away from this one could fill an essay in themselves, so it would be ridiculous to try to even summarize them here. What prevailed as an overarching idea throughout the whole book was, “how refreshing that Smith is willing to suggest that, perhaps, we’ve been thinking about this all wrong for the last couple of generations.” Smith’s take on spiritual formation and “worldview” alone is worth reading the whole book.

I have a friend who felt this one didn’t end as well as it started; he said he will reserve judgment, knowing that Smith intends this to be part one of a three-part book series. I disagree with that, as I felt the book finished at least as strongly as it started (and for various reasons I thought the concluding chapter was thoroughly satisfying in every way except the abrupt ending). But I do share his sense that the final word on this book will come as the other two books are added to it; as such, I’m excited about Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, and have already pre-ordered my copy.

I took my time with this one, wanting to savor and process it in bits and pieces rather than rush through it. I’m glad I did, though I do wish I had not taken quite as long. I do recommend a measured pace, however.

The Cider House Rules: A NovelThe Cider House Rules: A Novel by John Irving

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I find John Irving one of the better writers/authors of our day. He has a great way with character development, and his capacity for weaving an engaging plot is artful. I’ve now read several of his novels, and also seen a couple of the movies based on his books; his stories are the kind that draw you in and keep you attached.

This was good; an interesting story, and well-told, with intriguing characters and an enjoyable plot. Irving has a frankness about sexual things, and is willing to poke at some of the more sensitive spots in our culture — so it didn’t surprise me that The Cider House Rules contained some edgy scenes. Still, there were a few that were bordering on bawdy, and it struck me as the kind of book I would rather my kids not read anytime soon. This was a contrast to A Prayer for Owen Meany, which (while still containing some of the frankness) didn’t quite have that “I might be embarrassed if someone were to read over my shoulder” quality that this one did.

I remember when the movie rendition of this story came out (I didn’t see it), and there was some sensation surrounding it with regards to the topic of abortion and how the book/movie allegedly is a “pro-choice” propaganda piece. That is certainly a central topic in the book, and folks who prefer to think of abortion as an ethically-simple, straightforward issue will probably be offended by the implication that there may be some moral/ethical complexity to the positions of those who are pro-choice. But the story and book are far from a propaganda piece, despite the eventual favorable posture toward abortion.

I enjoyed the book, and I’m glad I read it. It’s not for everyone, and maybe not the best introduction to John Irving’s fine writing.

The Year of Magical ThinkingThe Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joan Didion’s writing is exquisite; while her style is different from others (and without having read very many memoirs, I can’t say that I recognize Didion’s style as typical of the genre), it is magnetic and intimate. The account of her year of magical thinking is haunting and raw, with echoes of my own experiences with grief and mourning — and of those I have seen and known in others — that assured me throughout the book that Didion knew the same sort of spiritual and emotional process that I (and others) have also experienced.

If you seek answers, explanations, rationalizations, or clinical/self-help styled counsel for a recent loss, this book will not serve your needs. If you long for assurance that your pain and struggle are not abnormal — that you’re not going crazy — and the companionship of someone who has traveled the rocky path you find yourself on without the questions or platitudes or expectations that too often accompany any companionship during such a season, Joan Didion will accommodate your needs through this, her own story.

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