Friday, February 5, 2016

Lenten Reading: The Big List of Fiction

This is a huge list to be sure. But it has some of the most thought provoking books I know which can both entertain and inspire. It ranges from science fiction to mystery to Uncle Tom's Cabin. I ran this last year, but have tweaked it.

Mockingbird by Walter Tevis
Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods.
I've been jaded by the plethora of recent apocalyptic novels but this one is different. Perhaps the highest tribute I can give this novel is that when I finished I didn't want to read another book. To do so would sully what I'd just read before I'd finished thinking about it, as well as be unfair to anything that followed because it wouldn't be able to compare.

My full review is here. We also discussed this book in Episode 110 of A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Or, since Lent is only 40 days, at least the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring. I was was blown away by how much the audio experience added to my understanding of the richness and depth of the story. Admittedly, it was also greatly helped by The Tolkien Professor's class sessions on this book. You will be hard put to find a better primer on sacrifice, redemption, and many other key lessons for Christian life. I think this may be the best book ever written. And you could do worse than to read The Hobbit for starters.

Joseph R's review is the best I've read if you'd like a more complete look at the novel.

Scott and I were joined by Seth Wilson in a two-part discussion of this novel at A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast: part 1, part 2.

Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
The "Others" live among us, an ancient race of humans with supernatural powers who swear allegiance to either the Dark or the Light. Night Watch is three stories, each is told by former file clerk Anton, a Light Other who is now getting field experience in keeping the treaty between the Light and the Dark.

The way the three stories all look at Light and Dark, treaties and compromises, and even what it means to be unyielding on one side or the other ... is all not only a good story but food for thought about our own lives. My full review is here. A Good Story discussion is at episode 57.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
A bedraggled, galley ship survivor, despite his best efforts to the contrary, finds himself in the middle of royal intrigue. If that weren't enough, he is also pulled into the the affairs of the divine as a result and this complicates his life as one might imagine. This is a land of various gods and strong, dark magic. It is, however, also a land where free will matters in the outcome of events.

Will Duquette calls this "theological science fiction" and I agree. The way that free will is intertwined with what the gods desire, as well as what is "right," is fascinating and a good way to examine our own motives the next time we turn away from what God may be asking of us. My full review is here.

The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell
Of course, I'm still pushing this book. It is rare, to find a book about the zombie apocalypse that addresses the larger themes that one finds in science fiction apocalyptic literature. The Reapers Are the Angels is just such a rarity. Author Alden Bell looks beyond the popular appeal of zombies to the depths of the human soul. The column I wrote for last Lent about this book is at Patheos.

This was the book that inspired Scott Danielson and me to stop talking about a podcast and finally record an episode. Episode 1 at A Good Story is Hard to Find.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Harry is an incredible Christ-figure as I discovered when I reread the series recently. Of course, this only works for those who have read the series before.

For more depth and as accompanying materials, readers may want to listen to Episode 26 of A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast where Scott Danielson and I discuss the book and the entire series from a Catholic point of view.

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden
This extraordinarily sensitive and insightful portrait of religious life centers on Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman who leaves her life among the London elite to join a cloistered Benedictine community. That's the official description but it doesn't begin to cover the richly woven tapestry Godden weaves with nuanced personalities, mysteries to solve so that the order may continue, Philippa's internal struggles, and much more.

Again, Joseph R. has a wonderful review of the book.  Episode 97 at A Good Story is Hard to Find.

Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden
Another Godden book about a completely different order of nuns. This is an inspiring tale of conversion and redemption told in flashback sequence. We meet Lise when she is being released from prison where she has served her term for murder. She is going to join an order that ministers to those on the fringes of society.

Through Lise's thoughts, we watch her go from being a young WWII staffer in Paris, become seduced by a man who has a brothel and eventually turns her into a prostitute where later on she becomes the manager. The reasons behind the murder become clear as the threads come together again in the people around Lise in current time. My full review is here.

The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis
These books seem an interesting blend of fiction and nonfiction to me. Lewis's imagination is vivid and fascinating. His tendency to have characters speechify leans to the nonfiction side. Taken as a meditative read, they would be very good for Lent, I'd think.

Out of the Silent Planet: Dr. Ransom is kidnapped by two men who take him to Mars as a sacrifice to the natives. Ransom learns of their plot and escapes only to find, as the blurb says, a planet enchanting in its difference from Earth and instructive in its similarity." Lewis was fantastically inventive about what the planet and living beings were like. I didn't know he had it in him.

Perelandra: This book is so different from Out of the Silent Planet and yet we see C.S. Lewis's vivid and inspiring imagination just as clearly. I am simply blown away by his vision of creation on Venus. For me at one point, close to the end, I kept thinking that these are almost glimpses of the sort of creativity and inspiration that we will see in Heaven. Amazing insights as to battling evil, the dance of God's creation and plan, and our part in it.

That Hideous Strength: I couldn't read it fast enough. Consequently this was a 24-hour book for me. It is a testament to Lewis's imagination and writing skill as to how different all three of the books are in this trilogy, while simultaneously all carrying out the same basic theme. No wonder J.R.R. Tolkien loved them. This book left me striving to be a better person, to be truer to myself, as did the other two. Not many other books really leave one feeling that way.

Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger
This historical fiction tells of Andrea Orsini, who is one of Cesare Borgia's most trusted political manipulators during the Italian Renaissance. This is a swashbuckler that simultaneously shows Andrea's transition of a human heart from greed to love, selfishness to sacrifice, and power grubbing to nobility.

Discussed in episode 13 of A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simenson
Major Pettigrew is living a quiet life in the village of Edgecombe St. Mary when the news that his brother has suddenly died comes and sends him into a (very quiet) tailspin. It sparks a sudden friendship with Mrs. Ali who has also lost her husband. Both are struggling quietly with relatives who selfishly want to force them to behave differently.

This is a brilliantly told tale in which no character is perfect but also no character is without a nuanced personality, which means no one is all bad either. It's a gentle tale of love, second chances, and self realization.

Eifelheim by Michael J. Flynn
Imagine that in the 14th century a little village in the depths of the Black Forest has an alien space ship crash nearby. The aliens look like giant grasshoppers. Naturally, many of the local peasants think they are demons. Others, however, especially the village priest who was educated in Paris, take into consideration what makes a creature "a man." In other words, what constitutes a soul and therefore makes it incumbent upon us to treat aliens as we would wish to be treated? Flynn does an excellent job of recreating the 14th century mindset so this is not simply a story told with modern sensibilities in a long ago setting.

Discussed in episode 7 of A Good Story is Hard to Find.

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
A real page-turner which many think they know because the cultural references are so embedded in our society. However, if you haven't read this book then you don't know it at all. First and foremost, Uncle Tom actually is a Christ-figure, a living saint. No wonder he is misunderstood by so many.

Stowe does a good job showing many different attitudes toward slavery and how people excused themselves under the flimsiest of excuses. What is unexpected is how well she examines the varying levels of Christianity proclaimed and threaded solidly throughout the story.

I read this aloud on my Forgotten Classics podcast with commentary. Yes, that's how much I love it.

Our Lady of the Lost and Found by Diane Schoemperlen
A writer who lives a quiet life walks into her living room one day to find Mary (yes, the Blessed Virgin) standing in her living room with a suitcase. She needs a vacation to rest up before May begins with all the celebrations devoted to Mary. They talk, clean, and shop but it is never boring and is an engaging combination of the history of key Marian apparitions and a personal journey of faith for the writer who tells the story.

I think of this as a story of what Mary does in "ordinary time."


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  2. I'm putting "Mockingbird" on my wishlist. Too bad I'm on a book moratorium at the moment.

    I loved This House of Brede and read it on your recommendation. But I admit I don't know what you saw in The Angels Are the Reapers. It was sort of Southern Gothic at times (the mutant family and the family's hidden zombie patriarch) but then parts are of it were so stinking stupid, gas pumps working and putting a tracking device on someone's car. And don't even get me started on the under-aged girl seducing the fellow with "I can't get pregnant." Last year I enjoyed a better story about a girl dealing with zombies and people trying to kill her (and for better reasons than revenge). "The Last of Us" - a video game that I ended up watching when someone else played it - it was just that good. Sam Raimi is making a movie adaptation.

    Which leads me to the ending of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. A fun book except for couple of flaws, and one of those was towards the end when the female character did EXACTLY what her in-laws thought she'd do if left alone as a widow: sleep with Pettigrew. Perhaps the author decided her character should be "normal" (because no one waits until after the wedding), but boy! did that strike me as forced.

    1. All I can say is read my Free Mind review or listen to the episode at A Good Story is Hard to Find. Those both give my reason ... which don't have to do with story logic but with other issues. Both are linked in my comments on the book above. :-)