The Shack

The Shack The Shack by William P. Young

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
There has been a lot of buzz around this book. I probably wouldn’t have read it, except that I was intrigued after reading an excerpt on The first chapter was lyrical and full of wonderful imagery. So I decided to read it. Unfortunately, the author didn’t sustain that throughout the book. There were glimpses of it though. I hope this aspect of the author’s writing will grow with future efforts.

This is a book with a mission. Or a message. I’m not sure quite what that is. At times the author seems to beat you over the head with it. I almost expected devotional questions after each chapter. The mix of liberal ideas about the nature of God with conservative theology doesn’t quite work for me. Clearly the author wants to bring joy and hope to readers who are struggling with their own broken dreams and damaged hearts. And I do think this book has the ability to do that. While I don’t share the author’s theological stance, he creates room for each person to find their own relationship with God. Some have criticized that it anthropomorphizes God too much. Others, that the story is sappy and trite, and like a bad teenage fantasy novel. Yes, the story is silly at times. But it would make a great movie!

We all anthropomorphize God, creating Him in our own image, or at least in an image that is comfortable for us. Mr. Young’s depiction of the Trinity is an attempt to move people out of old religious stereotypes. It certainly isn’t meant to be taken literally. Even at the end of the book, there is a certain ambiguity about whether the encounter at the shack actually happened, or was it all the result of a blow to the head, or the aftermath of a car accident and coma? But most of the time I found myself thinking this is really silly. God doesn’t operate this way. The “miracle” of Mack’s healing was too superficial, and too “easy.”

Whatever your religious beliefs, the themes of wrestling with why God allows evil things to happen, the nature of free will, and the power of forgiveness are universal. Book clubs will find much to discuss here.

The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (The BuckShaw Chronicles, #1) The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

What a delightful book! I’m giving this one 5 stars. It’s a sort of English cozy, full of historical details, with an outrageous child protagonist, who is sometimes scary with her single-minded intensity. She is at once both precocious and naive, delightful and alarming, and utterly fearless. The cast of characters with their charming eccentricities rivals Alexander McCall-Smith as does the laugh-out-loud humor. I sincerely hope this will be made into a movie, and I have already put my name on the waiting list for book # 2,  The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, coming out in March. While written for adults, precocious older children and young adults would also find this enjoyable.

Book description from Amazon:
“In his wickedly brilliant first novel, Debut Dagger Award winner Alan Bradley introduces one of the most singular and engaging heroines in recent fiction: eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison. It is the summer of 1950 – and a series of inexplicable events has struck Buckshaw, the decaying English mansion that Flavia’s family calls home. A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. Hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath. For Flavia, who is both appalled and delighted, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”

To Flavia the investigation is the stuff of science: full of possibilities, contradictions, and connections. Soon her father, a man raising his three daughters alone, is seized, accused of murder. And in a police cell, during a violent thunderstorm, Colonel de Luce tells his daughter an astounding story — of a schoolboy friendship turned ugly, of a priceless object that vanished in a bizarre and brazen act of thievery, of a Latin teacher who flung himself to his death from the school’s tower thirty years before. Now Flavia is armed with more than enough knowledge to tie two distant deaths together, to examine new suspects, and begin a search that will lead her all the way to the King of England himself. Of this much the girl is sure: her father is innocent of murder — but protecting her and her sisters from something even worse….

An enthralling mystery, a piercing depiction of class and society, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a masterfully told tale of deceptions — and a rich literary delight.”

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Movie Tie-in Edition (rack) (Narnia) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

My initial reading of this book rates a 3.5, but the movie gets 4.5, so I’m giving an overall rating of 4. Probably, like other classics I have read (Pride and Prejudice, for example), the rating goes up over time and I should just give it a 5 now. I like books that grow on you.

I suppose my initial reaction was that I was a little disappointed. I didn’t feel it lived up to the hype that an author of the stature of C.S. Lewis deserved in my mind. Of course I was coming to it as an adult rather than as a child. I remember starting this book somewhere back in my youth, but I do not remember reading more than a couple of chapters. I think it bored me. I was probably too old for it then. Admittedly, it has a slow start. The talking animals are merely cute. It is not until Edmund is imprisoned by the White Witch that we begin to sense something deeper is going on. The ideal age for reading this (or having it read to you) is about 4-8. Most reviews say Grades 4-8. I think that is too old. For older children, I would recommend the Golden Compass trilogy.

Just as Philip Pullman has been criticized for being anti-religion, C.S. Lewis has been criticized for being too Christian. Well, it wouldn’t be C.S. Lewis if it weren’t. He was a theologian, after all. His aim was to write a Christian allegory that would teach children about good versus evil, morality, and good manners. But he doesn’t beat you over the head with it. Indeed, it can be enjoyed on many different levels. Younger children are not going to be sophisticated enough to pick up on the symbolism. They will enjoy a good fantasy adventure with animals that talk. Good triumphs over evil, spring comes after winter, one can redeem oneself after making bad choices, and love is the ultimate sacrifice.

The movie brings this little book to life. The actors are perfectly cast. Who can resist Georgie Henley as Lucy Pevensie? The CGI effects are well done. Aslan looks real and is given a wonderful voice by Liam Neeson. The White Witch is suitably chilling. The action is not always true to the book, but movies never are. Thankfully, it updated C.S. Lewis’s 1950s attitudes about women. I had to roll my eyes a few times in the book, for example – where the boys get to help catch fish for dinner while the girls end up helping in the kitchen.

After watching the movie, I now want to read the rest of the series, especially The Magician’s Nephew, which is a prequel to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and tells of the Professor’s adventures in Narnia when he was a boy.

From Scenes Like These

From Scenes Like These From Scenes Like These by Gordon M. Williams

I am rating this about a 3.75. It’s not the most comfortable book I’ve ever read, so I can’t say I really “liked” it, but the characters are memorable, and I think this is a book I will still remember a year from now. My goal is to read several books each year from the Booker shortlist. This “year” I am selecting books from 1969 and from 2009 – not necessarily the winners, but books that interest me.

This one is by a Scottish author, and set in the small industrial town of Kilcaddie in the west of Scotland in the 1950s. The main character is Duncan “Dunky” Logan, 15, who drops out of school to work as a laborer on a farm. It is a coming-of-age story as he tries to define himself as a man, and shed the people and habits that he thinks of as childish and/or compromising his freedom as an adult. Ironically, his choices are creating a very bleak and narrow road for himself. It is a rather depressing look at the prospects for young men (and women) in that time and place. I also found it a somewhat disturbing commentary on the male psyche!

I did learn a LOT of Scottish slang. I had to keep a notebook as I read, going online to look up words and phrases – 4 pages worth! Many I could have guessed at the meaning, so this probably wasn’t necessary for my understanding. It got tedious to stop each time, so I would save up a list, and then look them up later. A few to remember: messages = groceries, pieces = sandwiches, coup = a garbage dump, Ne’erday = New Year’s Day. Among the more colorful: neds and hairies and tinks, tattie-howkers, argy-bargy, nicky tams, hab-jabs, and bawbee.

First paragraph: “It was still dark, that Monday in January, when the boy, Dunky Logan, and the man, Blackie McCann, came to feed and water the horses, quarter after seven on a cold Monday morning in January, damn near as chill as an Englishman’s heart, said McCann, stamping his hobnail boots on the stable cobbles.”

Favorite quote: “Willie wasn’t as green as he was cabbage-looking.”

And this from the last chapter sort of sums up the whole book: “If grown men could change so quickly how could you be sure of yourself? You wanted to be like other people but they did the dirty on you, one way or the other. You started off trying to be different, trying not to turn out like all the others. You ended up worse than them. You ended up knowing you were a disgrace, full of all the things you hated in other people.”

Dunky wasn’t a bad boy. But he desperately needed a good, male role model, and there weren’t any.