Six months into the year, I finally decided to end a three-month blogging hiatus to talk about that one thing I can always, always talk about: books. At the beginning of the year, I set a goal to read 40 books in 2014, with ambitions to read longer volumes like Lonesome Dove (which, to be fair, I did read in its entirety). But with just one full day left in June, my halfway mark, I’ve read a grand total of 26!
I really need some new hobbies.
Anyway, I wanted to call out a couple of my favorite reads so far this year, one novel and one nonfiction book. Beginning with the one I just finished this afternoon.
Home by Marilynne Robinson
I’ve had this volume sitting on my bookshelf for years now. This is a quiet, simple book that demands the reader’s full attention, so you definitely have to be in the right mood for it. But, boy, give it some time to let these characters and their troubles simmer around in your soul, and you will be pleasantly surprised by the magnitude of this story’s power.
Home is a beautiful, heart-shattering retelling of the prodigal son parable, a slow-paced domestic tale about the aging Rev. Boughton and his troubled relationship with his forever-rebellious son. Told mostly through the eyes of Glory, the minister’s middle-aged daughter who has returned home to care for her aging father after suffering a tremendous heartbreak of her own, we watch as now-grown Jack Boughton returns to the family after a painful 20-year absence, bearing the emotional and physical scars of alcoholism, a 10-year prison sentence, a history shadowed with thievery and lies, and a lifelong sense of alienation from his own family’s home and faith. Rev. Boughton loves his prodigal son deeply, despite his many misgivings — most infamously his fathering a child with a young, poor farm girl in his youth — but still struggles to accept Jack’s rejection of Christianity. In fact, it is probably Jack’s struggle to accept the idea of salvation that hurts Boughton most deeply.
The novel is also the companion piece to Robinson’s second novel, Gilead. Home takes place in the same small Iowa town (called Gilead), and the main characters float between that story and this one, especially the town’s two aging former ministers: Rev. Boughton and his lifelong best friend, Rev. Ames. I like that despite the obvious religious undertones in books about two preachers’ families, Robinson’s novels are never preachy. If anything, her novels are an honest depiction of faith, of its failings as well as its triumphs.
Glory, Jack, and their father shuffle slowly from scene to scene in this book, from the front porch to the parlor to the kitchen, completing tedious rural chores like weeding the vegetable garden, scrubbing down the laundry, and fixing up the run-down family car. Lighthearted moments of recreation include impromptu performances of Sunday hymns and a reasonable game of checkers. Nothing much happens. But each character carries a great deal of hidden burdens and inner turmoil as they slowly, lovingly try to piece their family back together, as well as their own dignity — before it’s too late.
This is a book with little plot, but much to reveal about humanity — about brokenness and hope, about sin and forgiveness, about regret and grace. If you trod along through this novel patiently, you will be rewarded with the best kind of weep at the end, I promise.
This author has a new novel coming out the day before my birthday this year (!!!), called Lila, about the rough upbringing and mysterious past of Rev. Ames young wife. I can’t wait to see what humble and beautiful prose Ms. Robinson has in store for us.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
This is an utterly gripping, terrifying nonfiction book about a real place deeply enshrouded in mystery to outsiders: North Korea. Journalist Barbara Demick follows six ordinary North Korean citizens who defect from their country, following their escape from the crushing dictatorship to the outside world.
I loved that this story reads a lot like a novel. When we are introduced to the main characters, they are young and joyfully being indoctrinated into the North Korean ideology. As their stories progress, and they begin to question everything they know — coming to some pretty shattering realizations — I got chills. Chills, I tell you!
The breadth and depth of North Korean propaganda is fascinating and eerie and horrifying all at once. It’s hard as an American to imagine a country in which the political leader goes so far as to eradicate all religions, rob such faiths of their powerful symbolism and mythologies, and utilize them to make his citizens unfailingly loyal to the state. North Koreans even refer to the current calendar year based on the birth year of Kim Il-sung. (I’m getting the chills again.) This book completely immerses the reader in that culture of utter obliviousness and forced patriotism. This is the kind of stuff I wish kids — and by “kids,” I mean high school students — were required to read in school. Totally eye-opening.
I read this after reading the novel The Orphan Master’s Son for my book club, which is a novel that takes place in North Korea and which was pretty good, especially insofar as it made me desperately curious to know more about the real North Korea. I also watched two documentaries about North Korea, National Geographic’s “Inside North Korea,” which was like a crash course to North Korea, and “A State of Mind,” which follows two North Korean schoolgirls as they prepare for their gymnastics routine in the Mass Games, the world’s largest choreographed performance held in honor of Kim Jong-Il’s birthday each year. Did I mention it’s UTTERLY TERRIFYING?
“Inside North Korea” has a whole plot line about some kind-hearted doctors giving free cataract-removal surgery to North Koreans and then they have this big “unveiling” of the newly healed eyes, and each person hysterically thanks the “Most Glorious Leader” (that’s Kim Jong-Il, in this case) for their restored vision and cries and does praise-dances like they’re a bunch of born-again Christians getting baptized in the Mississippi on an Easter Sunday. Except they’re talking about their dictator. The guy who starves them, manipulates all their media and education, and… well, there come those chills again…
So basically I went on this really big “learn everything about North Korea” kick for a few months, and now I’ll never sleep peacefully at night again.
Sorry to end on such a depressing note. What’s your, uh, favorite uplifting read you’ve finished lately?