Book Reviews - 2023
Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy by Anne Sebba, 2021, Non-fiction
I found this book from a non-fiction book list on a book reader’s blog I follow. I read the book to find out why it was an American tragedy and what would cause a woman and mother to put her family at such risk. An award-winning journalist, Anne deftly tells the Rosenberg story that took place in the height of Cold War paranoia. She carefully documents the sad truth that Ethel’s execution was based on her brother-in-law’s perjury and represented a miscarriage of justice. The story reveals one of America’s worst moments and reminds us how fear can become more important than truth.
I, Judas by Taylor Caldwell and Jeff Stern, Biblical Fiction, first published 1977
I knew Taylor Caldwell from Great Lion of God (Paul) and Dear and Glorious Physician (Luke) which I devoured as a young adult. I. Judas surprised me on one of my email book lists, and I picked it as a good read in preparation for Lent. The language is somewhat dated but the intricate web of possible connections between Judas and Pilate, the Sanhedrin, Jesus, and the disciples is very plausible. Told first person from Judas’ perspective, rooted in it is an interesting and timely read considering flawed factions and misguided zeal today.
The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers, Nonfiction, 2019
What an interesting book I would never have read without its placement on my Book Club’s list! While I vaguely remember that coffee was discovered when goats returned to their giddy newborn antics after eating certain bean, I didn’t remember this happened in Yemen. At the beginning, the book feels like it is an immigrant story, then morphed into a page-turning survival story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali trying to get the first Yemen coffee beans to America in the middle of civil war. Put this book of perseverance, initiative, high-drama and unbelievable success on your Must Read list!
The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray 2021, Historical Fiction
Dray takes Lafayette’s French chateau as the connection of three women in three different historical periods. Adrienne is the political savvy and unfailing wife of American Revolutionary hero and subsequent leader in the French Revolution we simply know as Lafayette. Beatrice Chandler is an American socialite who becomes the driving force to transform the deserted chateau into a home for orphaned or displaced children of French WWI’s military families. Marthe Simone is a French teacher and hopeful artist who is drawn into Nazi resistance in an unexpected intrigue. As the threads of these three women’s pursuits are woven together, we learn more than most of us knew about the great love story and the personal cost of the Marquis de Lafayette and his contribution to American and French democracy. A fascinating and often gripping read.
Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May, 2020, Nonfiction/Memoir
Katherine May widens our understanding of “wintering” to mean a season of isolation, intense growth, or life change. She urges us to embrace rather than resist the winter season in life. Illustrations from extreme winter Nordic communities share interesting insights. However, be aware that this author leans toward an existentialist, secular, new age mind set. Still, I picked up some interesting ways to “winter” for growth and self-care.
Don’t Overthink It by Anne Bogel, Nonfiction, 2020
This book as bee on my TBR list since I heard the author on a podcast. With simple principles, personal illustrations, and all too familiar examples of daily overthinking, Anne leads the reader to better decision making without second-guessing everything. She’s pointed, practical, and principled. She talks less about productivity and more about removing stress and adding more joy to everyday life. Side note: She’s also the author of the very popular book selection email The Modern Mrs. Darcy and a podcast interviewing authors from a variety of genres. Check out her website https://modernmrsdarcy.com/
East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Fiction, 1952
Pulitzer Prize winner John Steinbeck set out to recreate a story paralleling the story of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. That’s what interested me. Steinbeck weaves a tangled plot involving two brothers Aaron and Caleb and their choices. As he chronicles a slow, desperate, and often depraved unraveling, he shows how individual choice determines destiny more than fate. Themes range from love, betrayal, identity, and what happens when love is withheld. The story is as brutal as it is masterful, but be warned; it isn’t for the faint of heart.
The Kommandant’s Girl by Pam Jenoff, Historical Fiction, 2007, Book 1
Just married Emma begins her new life as the Nazi’s invade Poland. When her husband joins the resistance movement, German-speaking Emma is secreted out of her Jewish ghetto to Kradow and given a gentile identity. She become personal assistant to the Kommandant. His interest in her is more than professional and leads Emma to make choices her Jewish faith did not prepare her for. What follows is a story of intense drama, loss, love, betrayal without losing hope.
The Diplomat’s Wife by Pam Jenoff, Historical Fiction Book 2, 2008
This story is a spinoff of Jenoff’s first book about Emma and the Kommandant. Marta was a friend of Emma, also serving in the resistance. While the war is over, espionage is not. Through a heart-breaking sequence of events, Marta finds herself pregnant and alone in London after the war. When a job for a British diplomat opens, she takes it. But there is more to her job than translating reports. Another page-turner, Marta also must make choices without knowing their outcome. What ensues is a story of twists and turns and surprises that makes for a fast and memorable read.
The Book Woman’s Daughter by Kim Michelle Richardson, 2022, Historical Fiction
When Honey Lovett’s parents were arrested because blue-skinned people were forbidden to marry to eradicate this genetic abnormality, Honey was on her own. Honey survived barely until she was hired for the same job her mother had, taking library books to the people of Troublesome Creek. When the legal and social system sought to steal Honey’s independence and place her in a reform facility, Honey would fight the most important opponent to her life: containment of her strong and competent spirit. This book is more than a celebration of the pioneer spirit, it is a rich ovation to the human spirit.
The Wonder Years by Geraldine Brooks, Historical Fiction, 2002
When the plague invades the English village of Derbyshire in 1666, the village self-quarantines to stop its spread. As the pestilence reaches into every family to change lives forever, Anna Firth leads us through a story of devastating loss from an uncontrollable enemy. This is a dark story of death compounded with its uninformed search for answers from all the wrong places. While it is based on the true story of Eyam, the truth of it shares little comfort until the very end. Choose this story for its historicity and emotive writing and you won’t be disappointed.
The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, by John Comer, Spiritual Formation, 2019
Hurry-it is one of our most abused addictions. We believe the lie that hurry helps us get more done, that life is about getting things done, that the more we get done, the more effective we are. However, when we do, we lose the ability to listen to the quiet, unhurried voice of God. John Comer, a pastor who knows what hurry did to his own life and the lives of the people he pastors, With wit and transparency, he debunks the myth that hurry is a spiritual gift. He doesn’t advocate slow, just simpler and Christlike. This is a book that must be read again to be practiced. My first time through won’t be my last.
All She Left Behind by Jane Kirkpatrick, Historical Fiction, 2017
Jenny Picket knew the healing power of oils and herbs, but she really wanted to be a doctor. However In 1870 in Oregon, only a few women were accepted into medical school. A difficult marriage, becoming a mother, and trying to hold her family together destroyed any hope of becoming a doctor. Then , in an unexpected twist, Jenny not only finds love again but also an open door to her dream. However, to embrace them both, she had to let go of the preconceptions that held her captive. Based on a true story, just like the many other stories Kirkpatrick weaves, the story will leave you with indefatigable hope
Love’s Sacred Song by Mesu Andrews, Biblical Nonfiction, 2012
I returned to a Mesu Andrews’ novel for an easy read on a recent trip. It is the story of Solomon and his Shunamite wife. I was attracted to the storyline Mesu created using Arielah, a shepherdess given to Solomon as a “treaty bride” and becomes the love of his life and the inspiration for Song of Solomon. At the heart of all Andrews’ novels is her extensive research. It was an intriguing read that sent me back to scripture more than once.
Sabbath As Resistance by Walter Brueggemann, Spiritual Formation, 2014
This book convicts me as few others have, especially on this subject. Brueggemann starts with why the post-Exodus people desperately needed Sabbath because of Pharaoh. The author makes us confront the truth that our want more, be more, do more perspective is Pharaoh-driven. He reminds us that our Creator God was not a workaholic and does not see this anxiety-producing trait something to be applauded. Instead, true-sabbath keeping helps us reflect God’s image in us. When we truly understand God’s purpose for Sabbath, keep a list of more yes than no. The is 6 short chapters but rich in more truth than I can assimilate in one reading.
The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese, 2023, Fiction
I was mesmerized by the intricacy of A Cutting for Stone and feared this new book might not hold the standard. But I was wrong. Covenant is a well-crafted weaving of a generational story that takes place in India. Here is what Amazon editor All Woodworth describes it: “the novel follows three generations of a family that are bound by a uniquely disquieting truth: in every generation, at least one family member will drown. And, because it’s Verghese, it’s not just a humble story of life and death, it’s a resounding and astounding, intimate and expansive, story of how cultural, social, and racial politics play out in the lives of wives, doctors, artists—many of whom are orphans—striving to find home and purpose in a world that is ever-shifting and ever-dangerous. The Covenant of Water is an entirely magnetic read that you won’t want to end.”
Hamnet by Maggie O’Ferrell, Historical Fiction, 2020
Hamnet is the story of the 11-year-old twin who dies too early in England in 1580. What is notable is that the name Hamnet was used interchangeably with Hamlet and his mother is the Anne Hathaway, wife of William Shakespeare, though she is called Agnes as it was found in her father’s will. O’Ferrell uses sparse historical details and casts a story about grief and loss and the possible artistic fodder it became for a young playwright in London. But it is more than a historical piece of fiction. Her prose is mesmerizing. Her weaving of the minimal details into a magnificent and heart-wrenching story is phenomenal.
Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt, Fiction, 2022
This is a book about unlikely friendship, an unsolved mystery, and unmet needs. How it involves an octopus named Marcellus, is the genius of this story. Through the deft writing and creative storytelling of Shelby Van Pelt, this debut novel was satisfying, intriguing, and sensitive. Tova cleans the aquarium at night and talks to the ever-listening-always silent Marcellus. When a fall keeps Tova from work and a young man appears at the aquarium looking for work and his father, another unexpected friendship emerges that will change both their lives.
Jacqueline in Paris: A Novel by Ann Mah, Historical Fiction, 2022
When Jackie Bouvier traveled to Paris to in 1949 to take her junior year of college abroad, she entered a year that would become one of the most formative years of her life. Using extensive research and interviews, Ann Mah reconstructs an emotional history of this year that was a year of freedom and all things French. It was a time of CIA spies, jazz clubs, museums, theater, and the threat of Communism everywhere. This one year shaped her, matured her, dazzled her, and may well have been the best year of her popularized and tragic life. Note: I listened to this as audio book and didn’t have to struggle with all the French phrases.
The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece by Tom Hanks, Fiction, 2023
I have already decided to read anything Tom Hanks writes. I like his detailed style and the pictures his words draw for me. He uses an overwhelming cast of characters that admittedly, are hard to keep straight. They include a returning WWII flame-throwing soldier, a young super-hero cartoonist, and movie people of all kinds and status. What I enjoyed the most was his behind the scenes look at movie making. And if you get the audio version as I did, Tom Hanks, himself, narrates his own story!
The Woman with the Blue Star by Pam Jenoff, Historical Fiction, 2021
Two young women in Krakow, Poland find themselves irrevocably linked during the German occupation of their homeland. Sadie was a Jew whose family had gone into hiding in the sewer. Ella was living with the only family she had left, a stepmother, who entertained Germans and not only socially. When the two girls met by accident at the sewer grate, they formed a friendship that would put each in danger while at the same time saving them in strange and unexpected ways. Pam Jenoff is a good storyteller whose stories haunt and inspire.
A Long Way Home by Lynn Austin, Historical Fiction, 2022
Two women, American Penny and Jewish German Gisela find their lives connected in this story of the effects of WWII and the way it changed and re-directed lives. Penny learns about the devastating war effects as her best friend, Jimmy, returns broken and in a deep and noncommunicative, suicidal depression. Penny embarks on a mission to find out what buried story has ravaged the mind of her friend. In the process she uncovers a story that brought Giesla and Jimmy together in mutual survival. What I appreciated the most from this book is the way Austin addressed the unanswered questions about how God could allow such inhumane brutality against the Jews. While no answer will ever settle the question, Austin makes crucial points I will not forget.
The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, by Dallas Willard, Christian Discipleship, 1998
This is a classic work on the life and growth of a follower of Jesus. Dallas Willard raises the bar, but not just by increasing what we do to follow Jesus. He reminds us that the life of Christ can be our life as we follow him in a fluid, connected intimacy. He shares the incredulity of a casual following and how it short-changes everything Jesus offers us in his death and resurrection. The book is 400 pages and heavy reading but not impossible. I read it in 10–20-minute chunks so that I could assimilate the information better. It will be my go-to reference for everything related to living the abundant life Jesus promised.
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, Nonfiction, 2011, Pulitzer Prize
I read this book to prepare for our upcoming Nile River cruise through Egypt. This book didn’t disappoint. She lived as Queen of Egypt for 20 years, was a shrewd political player and not against using every advantage of her beauty and reputation to get what she wanted. It is true that she had romantic relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony with children to prove it. However, her relationship often appeared as political as they were romantic. She was a woman before her time, with wealth and clout and savvy. After reading the historical account, I wonder why anyone thought her story needed any upgrades!
The President’s Wife by Tracy Emerson Wood, Historical Fiction, 2023
A video interview featuring the author piqued my interest about the second wife of Woodrow Wilson, our 28th president. Opening after Woodrow’s first wife had died and he meets Edith Galt, also widowed, the rest of the book chronicles their loving relationship that took a critical turn when Wilson suffered a stroke. Edith Wilson became the gatekeeper for her husband to the frustration of political leaders and especially opponents. I found it a fascinating read because I knew nothing of this time which covered World War I, the establishment of the League of Nations and other key initiatives. Detailed without being boring, this book is an informative addition to understanding a critical part of our history.
The Violin Conspiracy: A Novel, by Brendan Slocumb, Fiction, 2022
Ray is rising violinist who was raised as a black man in Charlotte, S.C. He began his dream of becoming an internationally known violinist with the family “fiddle” he inherited from his grandfather, a freed slave, which he found out was a Stradivarius. While Ray knew the family stories of his grandparents’ slavery, he wasn’t prepared for the prejudice he still confronted. Just before the renowned Tchaikovsky competition, he opens his battered case to find that his violin was gone-stolen. In masterful storytelling, Slocumb takes us on a musical mystery where in a world few of us understand and it isn’t all about music.
Walking the Nile by Levison Wood, Nonfiction, 2017
A self-made explorer with other “walks” behind him, set out to “walk the Nile” river from its beginning in Rwanda all the way to Egypt. It was a 4,000 mile walk through six countries the deathly Sahara and included once detained by police. He almost gave up once when journalist Matthew Power, who came to get the story, died from a heatstroke. He learned about the people, customs, and history of the jig-sawed picture that makes up a continent of mystery, unrest, and beauty. Reading it was a way of capturing the whole of a continent I will only know in parts.
The Woman with a Cure by Lynn Cullen, Historical Fiction, 2023
The story of developing a successful vaccine to eradicate polio is a braided story with multiple threads. While I remember the names of Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, I never heard of Dorothy Horstmann around which this story winds. She was a research scientist in a world of men. Though she discovered how the polio virus entered the blood stream to attack the nervous system, few have ever heard of her. This story gives Dorothy her long-deserved place in the race for the cure. It is a story of perseverance, professional humility, and reminds us that every life-saving discovery comes at a price we might not have paid.
The River We Remember by Kent Krueger, fiction, 2023
The story begins in 1958 with a murder on Memorial Day in Jewel, Minnesota. The body of a prominent landowner floated on the Alabaster River and introduced questions, accusations, and began an unraveling of secrets. The mystery brings together a war widow and her teenage son, an aging veteran sheriff, a native American with his own war memories, and a persistent female lawyer. Krueger uses them to weave a masterful story of many threads to help us understand how we want healing but often sabotage the way to find it. This book was a must-read for me after hearing the author in person.
One More River to Cross by Jane Kirkpatrick, Historical Fiction, 2019
I returned to one of my favorite authors who always brings me a pioneer story that highlights the strength and sacrifice of women. This story idea came from a footnote about an 1844 pioneer group from Missouri headed to California on the Oregon Trail. It mentioned how the the women and children struggled to survive in a crude cabin for the winter while the men hoped they could make it to California and return for them in the spring. With extensive research and imaginative storytelling, Jane Kirkpatrick is at her best.
The Last Man at the Inn by R. William Bennett, Christmas fiction, 2019
This story is based on a what-if query. What if the man who took the last room at the inn that moved Mary and Joseph to the stable was the same man who who carried Jesus’ cross 33 years later? It is a believable story that weaves us through guilt, faith questions, family faith divisions, all the way to belief and a personal encounter with Christ. It was a short, satisfying read to begin the Christmas season.
The Christmas List by Richard Paul Evans, Christmas Fiction, 2009
There’s nothing like a Richard Paul Evans book to deliver a good Christmas read. When a false story of the death of ruthless businessman, James Keir, hits the newspapers, James gets an unexpected understanding of how deeply people hated him. He begins a journey of forgiveness and restitution more difficult than he imagined. Evans knows how to tell a story that pulls the heartstrings. This one did not disappoint.