Book Review: “Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman

The more I read them, the more I love old myths and legends. They’re more than stories, more than magic and gods and the fantastic, they’re part of the history of a people group. They give insight into what mattered to a culture, what a people believed about themselves and life.

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My husband is half Norwegian. His father’s parents emigrated to the United States after their first child was born. They are all very proud of their heritage, which shows itself in recipes, jokes, and heirlooms and even a regularly repeated rumor of lineage to Odin. *wrinkles nose dubiously* So when one of my favorite authors announced that he was releasing a book of Norse Myths, I was extra excited to read it.

I often describe Neil Gaiman’s writing voice as beautiful to the point of dangerous. His tone is fluid, poetic, and enchanting. Once he begins to tell a story, I don’t want to stop listening, and if my 9 month old baby wasn’t trying to nibble the book every time it appeared, I would easily have finished this book in two days. In the end, it took me two weeks and the dust jacket, which frequently sacrificed itself as bate to her grabby, curious hands, barely escaped with its life.

The myths inside are not written as a bare timeline of incidents the way I remember Hamilton’s Mythology, (which, while informative, I will always refer to as “the cure for insomnia”). Norse Mythology read like a novel, each episode one step closer to the inevitable doomsday of the gods, Ragnarök. The cast of characters includes fiendish dwarves, clever giants, and many flawed, yet powerful gods. Gaiman tells each tale with his usual flourish and touch of humor. It was perfectly executed.

Basically this book is beautiful and everyone should read it.

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Book Review: “The Ragamuffin Gospel” by Brennan Manning

I first picked up The Ragamuffin Gospel over ten years ago. My parents forewarned me that Brennan Manning was basically a heretic, and that I probably shouldn’t read it because I was easily confused. I was rebellious enough to insist I had the wisdom to discern truth from error, but inwardly terrified I’d be led astray. I skimmed it, then promptly reported to the authorities that they were absolutely right and should I throw the book in the trash now?

This time I actually read it.

Manning delves deep into the relentlessness of God’s love. He reminds the reader how small, broken, and messed up we are, ragamuffins all, and how only those who embrace their own innate neediness can be open to the unfathomable love of God. I know there are many who feel Manning is a bit of an extremist when it comes to the overwhelming nature of God’s grace, but I found his book refreshing and beautiful. Though, I also don’t feel the need to agree 100% with everything I read in a book in order to find it encouraging or enlightening.

The church culture of my youth was your stereotypical hellfire and brimstone kind of church. I wasn’t truly introduced to the idea of a compassionate God who relentlessly loved me until I met my husband and began to study the Bible with him. I think that’s what made the experience of reading this book so moving, especially with its timing on my personal journey. The heavy discouragement I’ve experienced in the past year has made this reminder of my position before Abba like a cup of tea after a long winter’s walk.

“On the last day when Jesus calls me by name, ‘Come, Brennan, blessed of my Father,’ it will not be because Abba is just, but because His name is mercy.”
~ Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel

Book Review: “The Reckless Way of Love” by Dorothy Day

Since giving birth I’ve had trouble fitting reading into my daily schedule. But now with such luxuries as the baby’s regular bedtime, I’m finally able to sneak in a chapter here and there. I look for short, easy reads that I can pick up and put down at a moments notice. You know, in case the baby decides she’s going to dig some chokeable substance from deep underneath the sofa or crawl towards the ledge that leads down into the hallway.

The Reckless Way of Love is a lovely collection of thoughts from Dorothy Day’s letters and writings. Because each reflection is usually no more than four paragraphs long, it met my need for something I could pick up and put down without ever losing my place. An added bonus was that the content is spiritually encouraging, something I am in dire need of these days. I could grab a paragraph before minding the baby, and carry the thought of it with me as I went.

The book covered topics of Christian love, suffering, sacrifice and what it means to follow Christ. A writer herself, her book even contained a poignant quote about writing.

“Writing a book is hard, because you’re ‘giving yourself away.’ But if you love, you want to give yourself. You write as you are impelled to write, about man and his problems, his relation to God and his fellows. You write about yourself because in the long run all man’s problems are the same, his human needs of sustenance and love.”
– Dorothy Day

While I didn’t agree with everything she said, I think it’s important to be able to read books from other perspectives, so you can understand other beliefs. I really appreciated her thoughts on suffering and about living in community with other Christians. With my husband still in seminary, we would be lost without the generosity of family and friends who have opened their homes to give us a place to live.

One of the nicest things to do with a pleasant read is to pass it on to another. After sharing a passage of this book with my sister in Texas, I offered to mail her my copy when I finished reading it. I’m glad that I continued to underline my favorite passages as I read, because every time I took out my pencil, I knew it would be there when she read it. It felt like I was sharing thoughts and reflections with my sister who is so far away.

“It is not filth and ugliness, drugs and drink and perversion he is asking us to prefer him to. He is asking us to prefer him to all beauty and loveliness. To all other love.”
~ Dorothy Day ❤

Book Review: “If My Moon Was Your Sun” by Andreas Steinhöfel

The first children’s book I received from Plough Publishing was Charlie the Tramp by Russell and Lillian Hoban. They sent it to me bundled up in a red bandana, as though the book itself had been a traveler and needed a place to stay. It was an adorable read about a little beaver named Charlie who wants to experience the beauty of the world by wandering the fields and forests as a tramp. I read it that night to my little brother-in-law, then tucked it safely onto my bookshelf. It hasn’t gone wandering since then, so I guess it’s still just as happy in my home as I was to welcome it. 😉

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Around Christmas time, I was sent another children’s book. Andreas Steinhöfel’s If My Moon Was Your Sun didn’t come to me wrapped up in a red bandana, instead it came with a lovely audiobook version attached, which is exciting for a whole new set of reasons. Unfortunately, this time I didn’t sit down and read it right away, but even though I waited several months before I cracked the binding, I got the blessing of reading this book to my own child instead of someone else’s.

Yes, I know it was far beyond her level of understanding, but I am of the opinion that it’s important to start reading to your children early, and at 6 months old, the only books she’s shown a real interest in are the ones that have finger puppets attached. So as far as I’m concerned, so long as it has pictures I’m going to read it to her, and she liked the pictures in this as much as the ones in Goodnight Moon. Frankly, so did I.

It took a few days to get through it with her, because her attention span is limited, but it still felt so special to share it with her. The illustrations are warm and whimsical, and fit perfectly with this sweet story about a little boy who kidnaps his Grandfather from a nursing home so they can spend the day together in one of their favorite fields. If you read my book reviews at all, you know I’m a sucker for anyone who has the ability to take difficult subjects and translate them into language gentle enough for young readers to metabolize. Steinhöfel did this beautifully, and got me choked up a little as his prose sang about how love can remain through loss.

No, my 6 month old didn’t understand it, but one day she will, and I can’t wait to read it to her again when she does.

A Picture Worth 1000 Words

The more graphic novels I read, the more gems I find. I’m eclectic in my reading tastes. I’ve dabbled in everything from superheroes to fairytales.

Some of my favorite graphic reads have been memoirs. I’ve found several middle grade pallet cleansers, like Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, which I loved just as much for its sweet story as its artwork. The character’s expressions reminded me of Calvin and Hobbes, a style that I love.

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Lucy Knisley’s graphic memoir, Relish, had a similar brightness to its story and artwork, but added a more literal sweetness by putting recipes at the end of every chapter. When I showed this to my mother-in-law, a fantastic cook, she loved it too, and my copy passed on to several other reader-cook family members.

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Utterly different but still excellent, Lies in the Dust by Jakob Crane depicted the story of Ann Putnam, the only girl to apologize for her part in over twenty deaths during the Salem Witch Trials. Timothy Deker’s use of black and white for the illustrations emphasized the dark history that inspired this book with its lack of color.

It was shortly after this that I read the March trilogy by John Lewis. This too was illustrated entirely in black and white, an ideal choice for this moving graphic memoir.

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Congressman John Lewis tells the story of his role in the Civil Rights movement juxtaposed against the inauguration of President Barack Obama. These were beautiful not only for of the history they tell, but also for of the way it’s told. The black and white illustrations take on an almost symbolic nature since the book is all about racism and the fight for equality. Also, the lack of color softened the violence depicted in the novel, allowing it to remain historically accurate in its intensity but muted enough for younger readers. It’s hard to know what to show when the history being told includes so many murders, but I thought they did an excellent job.

I loved all of these books, but March was one of those reading experiences that I want to share with everyone. It’s a true story of bravery in the face of death and torture, of people standing firm for truth, of a people’s fight for freedom.

It’s an account of real American heroes.

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John Lewis speaking at Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963

Book Review: The Genius of Ian Doescher

Timothy and I have been reading to each other since our dating years. We used to read each other to sleep over the phone, a practice that created more than a few interesting phone bills. Tim read me C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet and I read him My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier. On nights when my anxiety disorder was making sleep hard, he’d read me the book of Ruth. In fact, I asked him to read it so many times that he recorded it for me as a gift one Valentine’s Day. I would listen to it when I drove. He’s read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy to me, plus the Hobbit, and we’re about a third of the way into Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.

Our most recent conquest was to complete all six of Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars books.

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When watching the movies, we are part of the original trilogy first fandom, so we started our reading with Verily, a New Hope and ended with Tragedy of the Sith’s Revenge.

The first trilogy was awesome. They were funny and clever and so very full of iambic pentameter. The author worked hard to follow the patterns Shakespeare followed in his plays, like lovers speaking to each other in rhyming couplets or random interjections of song. He also deviated at times to attempt to stay true to the Star Wars characters. For example, Doescher felt Yoda’s speech pattern from the movie sounded too close to iambic pentameter, so to distinguish his voice from all the other characters Yoda speaks in haiku. Some of our favorite passages were the ones that tightly mimicked famous scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, and the random soliloquizing of wampas and AT-AT’s.

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As someone who occasionally borders on denying the existence of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, I was surprised how much I enjoyed the prequel trilogy books in this series. I was, however, not surprised that my enjoyment of them was still inferior to those on the original trilogy. The Phantom of Menace made some cute jabs at inconsistencies that fans often complain about, like the technological differences between the two time periods, but as the series went on it made me laugh less and less. I think what changed my mind about them was when I realized that the story arch for the prequel trilogy really does mirror a tragedy. I just let myself enjoy the ironically Shakespearian nature of the events and stopped waiting for the next laugh.

These books were absolutely a treasure to read. Doescher’s knowledge of Shakespeare and love of Star Wars created a lovely set of books which appealed to both the nerdy literary and nerdy Star Wars sides of both of our natures. When Tim and I finished with the last one, we discussed the pros and cons of Doescher releasing a book on The Force Awakens before the entire trilogy is released. We both thought he should wait, for purposes of foreshadowing and other literary devices. However, we quickly discovered through Goodreads that it is already written, and The Force Doth Awaken is set to be released on October 3, 2017. Though we’re both a little dubious if this was his best move, we will still happily read it together once it’s released.

It’s bound to be excellent, regardless.

Book Review: “The Road to Little Dribbling” by Bill Bryson

All the preparations for Little Baby’s arrival have been putting me on edge, so I’m thankful for books that help me unwind and make me laugh. Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain was one of those books.

Bryson was born and raised in Iowa. He married an English woman, and has been living in England for years now, where they raised all their children. His love for England and understanding and appreciation of what it means to be an American, made this book all the more enjoyable for me, especially when he discussed differences in our cultures.

I didn’t know this was a sequel to his book, Notes from a Small Island until I had already started reading. I kept going, figuring that, since it was a travel book, it wouldn’t make a difference. Now that I’m done, I wish I had stopped and read the first one first. Some of the areas he visited were revisits from the first book. It would have been interesting to have a deeper understanding of how the places had changed between the publishing dates of 1995 and 2015. He give plenty of context whenever he discussed changes, so there was no confusion, but I still felt I was missing out on something by reading the second one first.

That aside, everything else about this book was lovely. Bryson has a witty and snarky sense of humor that turns almost all of his interactions with people into laugh-out-loud anecdotes. I listened to this as an audio book, and a few times in the beginning I zoned out, until suddenly I was snapped back into reality when Bryson said something rude or absurd to a shop attendant. Just as I thought, I can’t believe he had the guts to say that he would suddenly admit that he only thought the thing, which meant that the majority of the interaction was all made up. This happened multiple times throughout the book, and seriously, sometimes it was so funny that I had to cover my mouth to keep myself from exploding with laughter in a public place. I mean, haven’t we all been there? That torn feeling of I-really-want-to-tell-you-off-but-it-would-be-rude. I sympathized while I smiled.

By the end of the book I was just in love with his writing style, a combination of history and humor, all built around lovely descriptions of places I’ve never been. Half way through the book, I was adding most of his other books to my Goodreads “to-read” list and checking my library to see which ones they had copies of. Definitely one of my new favorite authors.