Away by Amy Bloom
(Random House, 2007, 265 pages)
Lillian moved to America to start her life over after her entire family, including her daughter, were murdered in the middle of the night. Lillian tries to adjust and survive in her new world while fighting off dreams of that horrific night. She quickly becomes the mistress of a popular actor Meyer Burstein, who has secrets of his own to keep hidden, and his father, Reuben. Lillian’s expenses are taken care of by both men and she seems to have found temporary relief from her struggles. But when her cousin shows up with the news that her daughter was not killed that night but managed to escape with the neighbor family, Lillian leaves it all behind and risks her life to be reunited with her daughter.
This wasn’t my favorite read. I appreciated the history and the emotion that Bloom packed into the novel but I didn’t enjoy seeing the situations that Lillian got herself in. Most of the relationships that Lillian or other minor characters get involved in can only be described as icky. I also wasn’t a fan of how Bloom switched up the dialogue format. There were quite a few times that I had to double check who was speaking or even if what was being said was out loud. One of the few things I did enjoy is that once a character was being written out of the story, Bloom would provide a brief synopsis on what happened to the character in the future.
A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis
(Harper & Row, 1989, 89 pages)
C. S. Lewis wrote two different books on the topics of pain and suffering. The first, The Problem of Pain, was published in 1940, sixteen years prior to his marriage to Joy Davidman. The second, A Grief Observed, was published a year after cancer brought a painful end to Davidman’s life in 1960. Each book has a particular line which typifies its approach to the subject. In The Problem of Pain Lewis tells us that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” In A Grief Observed, Lewis begins with this chilling line: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear” (15). In the first book Lewis looks at the intellectual issues surrounding the problem of suffering and argues that pain is a tool that God uses, one whose good we are not in a position to fully comprehend. In the second book Lewis documents the fresh wound of his grief, angered by the pain and uncertain of the answers he once thought he had.
A Grief Observed is a remarkable book. It deals not only with the theoretical problems of suffering but gives expression to grief in its various stages and shades. More than this though, Lewis grapples with what it means to be creatures which exist beyond death. It explores the intersection of the spheres, heavenly and earthly, supernatural and natural, through the experience of loss, pain, and fear. For Lewis, grief is not a problem to be solved, but a process through which we must travel. It is a process which evidences something of the inexplicable and mysterious quality of the world in which we live.
The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis by Alister E. McGrath
(Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, 206 pages)
This is a book of scholarly (yet accessible) essays that Alister McGrath has written as an extension of the research that went into his biography, C. S. Lewis: A Life. McGrath delves more deeply into some of the issues that he touches on in the biography, like the reliability and purpose of Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis’ apologetic method, the Oxford philosophical context which shaped Lewis, and Lewis’ religious identity and status as a theologian.
The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis is one more sign that Lewis is increasingly viewed, not simply as an intelligent writer of popular books, but as an important figure in the intellectual landscape of the twentieth century. Casual fans of Lewis’ Narnia books may not find this volume worth their time, but those familiar the broader range of Lewis’ writings will benefit from the context and critical engagement that McGrath provides. Some of the material became a bit repetitive, especially in light of cursory treatments of most of these subjects in the biography. I found the final two essays, “A ‘Mere Christian’: Anglicanism and Lewis’s Religious Identity,” and “Outside the ‘Inner Ring’: Lewis as a Theologian,” to be the most interesting and helpful. This was in part because these essays contained the least amount of overlap with McGrath’s previously published material, and in part because they dealt well with issues regarding Lewis’ legacy on which there are widely divergent opinions.
C. S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Alister McGrath
(Tyndale House Publishers, 2013, 448 pages)
At this point there may be more books about C. S. Lewis than Lewis himself could ever have read, which is saying something. And yet 2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’ death, which means we are seeing even more books about the famed Oxford don with Alister McGrath’s biography being the most prominent. Thankfully, the perspective and detail that McGrath’s book offers more than justifies its existence. It is hard to pick out a particular book that is the definitive resource for a biographical picture of Lewis – in part because of the sheer amount of such works and in part because the diversity of Lewis’ own writings and career provides plenty of opportunity for books dealing with varying aspects of his life, thought, and legacy. If McGrath’s biography doesn’t necessarily earn the descriptor “definitive” it is certainly fair to say that it will become the preferred biography for many seeking a biographical introduction to Lewis.
The strength of McGrath’s book lies in his use of Lewis’ collected letters, which have been published in three volumes over the last eight years, and extensive archival research pertaining to the details of academic life at Oxford and Cambridge universities. This research and careful reading and analysis of the correspondence both brings to light important new insights, particularly regarding the dating of Lewis’ conversion, and helps to paint an overall portrait of Lewis which benefits from being highly contextualized. McGrath has a thorough knowledge of the Lewis corpus, which he puts to good use in analyzing Lewis’ work. Though sympathetic to and appreciative of Lewis, McGrath’s book doesn’t shy away from the inclusion of unflattering aspects of Lewis’ personality and conduct. The final product is a very readable and thoroughly researched perspective on Lewis’ life and work which benefits from appreciative critical distance.
In addition to this new biography, McGrath has subsequently released a collection of scholarly essays, entitled The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis, which explore Lewis’ intellectual context. The essays pick up and expand points made in the biography, and they should be of interest to those who find McGrath’s evaluation of Lewis helpful.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
(Harcourt, 1971, 113 pages)
The Little Prince is a little book which, given time, attention, and careful engagement, can shape the way a reader sees the rest of the world. In fact, this is one of the major themes of the book. The Little Prince journeys from his tiny planet, populated by three tiny volcanoes (one inactive), and a single rose which he cares for. He travels to other small planets, populated by mostly uncomprehending adults, and finally makes his way to earth. He is overwhelmed when he encounters a whole field of flowers which seem to make his own rose insignificant by comparison. However, he meets a fox who asks the Little Prince to “tame” him – to create ties through care and attention. The fox explains that the Little Prince has cultivated this kind of affection for his rose and that the rest of the world, and all the flowers that it contains, take on a new significance and beauty because of his love for his rose. This theme gets played out in various ways throughout the book as we learn how the fostering of love and affection for small things (and all the pain and joy that comes with such involvement) can grant understanding of and significance to the world at large.
A bit of familiarity with the biographical details of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s life give added significance to this story. The illustrations, humor, and wisdom of Saint-Exupéry’s story have made The Little Prince a classic. The tiny hero of the story and his humorous encounters with ridiculous adults appeals to children. Adults have the opportunity to relearn and to articulate an essential truth that many children seem to know implicitly: “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win WII
by Denise Kiernan
(Simon & Schuster, 2013, 373 pages)
In 1945, a rural area of 60,000 acres in Eastern Tennessee had one of the 10 largest bus systems in the United States. This town, absent from any map, also boasted an electricity bill that made New York City look like the Dogpatch. This town, Oak Ridge, was only known as the Clinton Engineering Works from 1942 to 1945. It was one of the three secret sites chosen by the Manhattan Project. Started in 1942, the U.S. Government began quietly acquiring the farm land to build massive facilities to refine and develop nuclear materials. Many farmers came home to find eviction notices tacked to their doors. Most were given six weeks to evacuate; several had as little as two weeks. Some were even forced out before they received compensation. The population grew from 3,000 in 1942 to 75,000. One of the facilities, the K-25 uranium-separating building, covered 44 acres and was the largest building in the world at that time. All workers wore badges, and the entire town was fenced in with seven gates and heavily guarded. Most workers had never heard of uranium until the nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan in August 1945.
This is an impressively researched book. Kiernan uses first-person interviews and other sources to create this documentary-style book. Many young women from small towns were recruited to work in the factories of Oak Ridge to enrich uranium for the atomic bomb. They were sworn to secrecy and unable to discuss details with their families or each other. Kiernan profiles the lives of several women who worked in a variety of roles at Oak Ridge. They worked as chemists, housekeepers, nurses, and pipe inspectors. One of them was a statistician Jane Greer Puckett. Puckett initially had her heart set on an engineering degree. She carried enough credits in engineering, mathematics, and physics and was applying to enter the engineering program. She was simply told that the program wouldn’t accept girls. Puckett didn’t let this stop her. She became the first person to graduate with a statistics degree from the University of Tennessee in 1943. She was immediately recruited to Oak Ridge to manage the compilation of data on the separation of uranium-235 from natural uranium and the percentage of uranium-235 obtained. The Girls of Atomic City also gives a good overview of the Manhattan Project and describes key scientists and political players. The technical details of the atomic bomb are another fascinating part of the book which I enjoyed very much.
I would definitely recommend this to those who are interested in World War II and/or the history of nuclear energy and weapons.
Traces of Mercy by Michael Landon, Jr. and Cindy Kelley
(David C. Cook, 2013, 352 pages)
Traces of Mercy by Michael Landon, Jr. and Cindy Kelley is the first book in the Mercy Medallion Trilogy. The story begins at the very end of the Civil War. A wounded sniper is taken to a doctor’s office in St. Louis, Missouri. The sniper turns out to be a woman who is suffering from amnesia. The woman takes the name “Mercy” because of the mercy medallion found around her neck. The novel follows the story of Mercy and her quest to remember her past.
Traces of Mercy is categorized as historical fiction/romance/Christian. I’m normally more of a mystery reader, but I decided to read this novel because at one time I was a fan of Michael Landon, Jr.’s famous father, Michael Landon. Michael Landon, Jr. and Cindy Kelley do a good job keeping the novel fast-paced. I found it a little too predictable and dramatic, but still well-written.
Although Traces of Mercy is the first book of a trilogy, it can be read as a stand-alone book. However, Mercy’s story is not complete at the end of the book. Since Traces of Mercy is brand new, it will probably be a year before the second book in the trilogy is available. If you want to read Mercy’s complete story, you need to be willing to wait.