What I’ve been reading lately: the new and the notable.

What I've been reading lately: the new and the notable.

Welcome to Quick Lit, where I share short and sweet reviews of what I’ve been reading lately, and invite you to do the same.

I’ve been trying to stay on top of spring’s new releases. Today I’m sharing 5 of my favorite.

SEARCHING FOR SUNDAY: LOVING, LEAVING, AND FINDING THE CHURCH

by Rachel Held Evans

22574709I’ve been impatiently awaiting a new release from Held Evans, and this one doesn’t disappoint. The author’s adult experience with the church mirrors my own, and that’s not a coincidence: the book explicitly addresses the struggles millions of American millennials have with organized religion. The book is structured around the seven sacraments, so it’s no wonder that though categorized as a memoir, there’s a lot of theology here. (Readers of her blog and past books will have a good idea of what to expect.) Very fun to see my own church make a cameo appearance. Honest, moving, relatable. Release date: April 14.

WEARING GOD: CLOTHING, LAUGHTER, FIRE, AND OTHER OVERLOOKED WAYS OF MEETING GOD

by Lauren Winner

18669493People of faith are used to hearing metaphors for God—usually the same ones, over and over again. In her new book, Winner pushes aside these overfamiliar images to explore some of the more obscure biblical metaphors for God: clothing, laughter, fire, a laboring woman. More exposition than memoir, although my favorite parts were her insights from the class she taught at the local women’s prison. Intelligent and detailed, but not dry. Release date: March 31.

THE DREAM LOVER: A NOVEL OF GEORGE SAND

by Elizabeth Berg

23256785Berg’s brand-new novel is based on the incredible and iconoclastic life of French novelist Aurore Dupin, better known by her pen name: George Sand. Berg’s portrait of Dupin’s life, work, and motivations is fascinating, but like so many novels of this type—The Paris Wife, Loving Frank, The Aviator’s Wife—Sand’s voice never felt right to me. (If you like that type of novel, add this to your list.) This was my first Berg novel and I’d like to give her another try: what should I read next? Release date: April 14.

BLUE BIRDS

22105178

by Caroline Starr Rose

Starr Rose’s follow-up to sleeper hit May B. The year: 1587. The setting: Roanoke island. Two girls—one Native American, one just off the boat from London—form an unlikely friendship in the midst of dangerous relations between the settlers and the Roanoke tribe. YA historical fiction, written in verse, (which has “a book in a genre you don’t usually read” written all over it, at least for me). The verse makes for quick reading, so your kids will enjoy plowing through a 400 page book in record time. Release date: March 10.

INSIDE THE O’BRIENS

by Lisa Genova

22716194I went on a tear and read all of Genova’s works in one short month this spring, enjoying her fictional but uncannily accurate portraits of those affected by various neurological conditions—Alzheimer’s disease, left neglect, autism. In her latest book, she tackles Huntington’s, a lethal neurodegenerative disease which has no treatment and no cure. Genova describes it in her forward as “the cruelest disease known to man.” I couldn’t get through this book, but not because it wasn’t good: it might have been too good. Genova’s tale of a Boston police officer’s progressive illness wrecked me. A gripping read, but not for the faint of heart. Release date: April 7.

What have you been reading lately?

“One messes with the classics at one’s peril.”

Emma

Last week I had the pleasure of hearing Alexander McCall Smith discuss his brand-new novel Emma: A Modern Retelling at the first stop on his American book tour.

The novel is the third in The Austen Project, a new series of six novels that pair bestselling authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works.

Val McDermid penned the first book in the series, a reimagined Northanger Abbey published in April 2014. Joanna Trollope’s updated Sense & Sensibility followed in November 2014. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Pride and Prejudice is due out in 2016. The authors for Mansfield Park and Persuasion have not yet been announced.

The project has its critics, who have called the series everything from “unnecessary,” at best, to “a travesty,” at worst. They insist that it’s impossible to update Jane Austen for modern times, and they have a point.

But golly, it’s fun to try. When approached by The Austen Project in 2013 with an offer to write Emma, McCall Smith said it took him all of 30 seconds to say yes. At his talk in Louisville last week, he said getting to update Emma was “like being given a large box of chocolates” and that spending time in that world was “one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.”

But he also acknowledged the responsibility that comes with updating Austen for modern times, saying that “one messes with the classics at one’s peril.” Reimagining Austen was like retelling a Greek myth; her stories are so appreciated and so widely known that “a certain responsibility” accompanies any re-write.

McCall Smith said he doesn’t object to modern updates of classic works: even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is fine by him. But he does say it’s necessary to approach the work in the right spirit and with due respect for the original.

Emma A Modern Retelling

When we went to hear McCall Smith speak about his Emma, I was a hundred pages in to the book, and was finding it surprising: McCall Smith hewed much closer to Austen’s storyline than I expected, but his tone didn’t resemble Austen’s at all, though he does share Austen’s wry humor: at one point Emma comments that Harriet Smith is a rather old-fashioned name.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to hear him speak before I finished the book, because I quickly realized that he wasn’t striving to sound like Austen. He wanted to be true to Austen in another way: by telling a story in which virtue is rewarded.

The original Emma shows the growth of its protagonist’s moral development: over the course of the novel, Emma comes to terms with the fact that there are other people in her world, with their own wants and interests, and she learns to accommodate their desires, as well as her own. In short, Emma grows up.

That is how McCall Smith’s reimagined Emma is true to Austen’s, even though it will certainly give hard-core Janeites the vapors (especially when they see the liberties McCall Smith took with Harriet): it remains a book about growing up.

I found McCall Smith’s Emma a fun, entertaining read, but I’m certain I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much had the author not reframed my expectations at the midpoint. I’m equally certain many Jane Austen fans will abhor this reimagining, finding it strays too far from the spirit of the original.

But I find that—even with Austen—there are more ways to be true to the spirit of the original than I’d imagined.

Have you read this reimagined Emma yet? Do you intend to? Should I go ahead and pass you the smelling salts? I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments. 

P.S. For the Janeite who ran out of Austen novels, and my favorite Jane Austen film adaptations.

5 books with thought-provoking structures.

5 books with thought provoking structures

Like most readers, I love books with strong characterization, compelling plots, and beautiful prose. However—and this may reveal the depths of my nerdiness—I’m always happy to find a book where the author has also done something unusual with the narrative structure.

Books with interesting structures give the reader an extra layer to unravel and appreciate. They deepen the experience of reading a good book, and salvage the experience of reading a mediocre one. (I’m looking at you, Gone Girl.) And they always make for great book club discussions.

These 5 books are (in my opinion) genuinely good to start with, but their interesting narrative structures elevate them to something special.

FORTY WAYS TO LOOK AT WINSTON CHURCHILL: A BRIEF ACCOUNT OF A LONG LIFE

by Gretchen Rubin

40 Ways to Look at Winston ChurchillIn this biography-of-sorts, Rubin argues that the larger-than-life Churchill’s portrait could be drawn in many ways, all “true.” She presents 40 different angles on Churchill, as child, man, politician, leader, husband, etc. All are interesting; many contradict each other. This fascinating, multi-faceted approach appeals will appeal to some, and make others crazy. A little slow in places, but worth the time. If you like this, go on to read Forty Ways to Look at JFK, but only after you’ve read this one: Rubin explains the reasoning behind her “forty ways” approach in this volume and doesn’t revisit them in JFK.

EINSTEIN’S DREAMS

by Alan Lightman

Einstein's DreamsScience writer Lightman’s premise is as follows: in 1905, young Albert Einstein dreamed repeatedly about time as he worked on his paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” and made creeping progress on his special theory of relativity. Lightman presents these (entirely fictional) dreams as a collection of poetic vignettes. Unusual and utterly delightful, and small enough to read in an afternoon.

LIFE AFTER LIFE: A NOVEL

Life After Life Atkinsonby Kate Atkinson

I began this book knowing nothing about it, and it took me a while to get my bearings. Atkinson’s creative (and sometimes, mind-bending) structure shows clearly how tiny choices in her protagonist’s life (and the lives of those around her) lead to vastly different outcomes. Vastly. Bonus: Atkinson’s novel is packed with literary references that serious literary types will appreciate.

THE ENGAGEMENTS: A NOVEL

The Engagements Sullivanby J. Courtney Sullivan

This novel traces the path of a diamond engagement ring from 1901 to 2012, and the four couples it links. The ring is lost, found, and stolen; it becomes a symbol of lasting love, and of betrayal. Woven throughout is the story of Mary Frances Gerety, the copywriter responsible for De Beer’s iconic slogan “a diamond is forever.” An easy read with emotional depth.

WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS: FIFTY-FOUR VARIATIONS ON VOICEwhen women were birds williams

by Terry Tempest Williams

What do you do when your mom dies and leaves you her old journals? And then you discover that her journals are blank? In 54 separate meditations, Williams unfolds the mystery of her mother’s life, and of her empty journals, and explores the power of words—and withholding them.

What would you add to this list?

P.S. Other books with fascinating structures: A Pattern Language, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Listening for Madeleine.

Books move in mysterious ways.

Books move in mysterious ways.

I mentioned last week that I was reading Ready Player One, but I didn’t tell you why.

A month ago I hadn’t even heard of the book, a 2011 sci fi novel by Ernest Cline. I first encountered it when I was updating the Kindle deals page. (Job perk: I actually encounter a lot of new-to-me books that way.) The description sounded interesting, but I didn’t feel compelled to read it.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Ready Player One kept coming up. My local writing partner said she was reading it, and recommended it. She raved about the audiobook, so I downloaded it from Audible but didn’t do anything with it. Before I could begin, my brother-in-law—whose tastes differ wildly from mine—told us all about it at family dinner, and he never talks about books at family dinner. And then Will came home from work with the paperback.

I believe that books find their way to you when you need them, and this book was clearly determined to find me.

I just finished another book that’s been on my list for too long: Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen, and I finally read it thanks to a giant nudge from MMD readers.

In Garden Spells, there’s a character who feels compelled to give odd little gifts to her friends and neighbors: strawberry pop tarts, two quarters, a silk shirt that’s three sizes too big. There’s a bit of magic about these gifts: the giver never knows what they’re for when she gives them. But they always turn out to be extremely important to the recipient, who soon finds that she needs those strawberry pop tarts for an unexpected guest, or two quarters to make an emergency phone call, or whose life will change when she goes to return that shirt. The gifts seem odd—even random—when they’re given, but they’re soon revealed to be vital.

I feel that way about reading. Sometimes I seek out a book because I need it, like my current reads on parenting and writing. But more often I feel compelled to read a book for reasons I can’t discern, and only later find that it’s essential to me, right then—not before I started reading it, but after.

I pay attention to cosmic hints, including hints about books. A decade ago, I felt like everyone I knew was telling me to read The Divine Conspiracy. I was halfway through the book—which was really shaking me up—when my son was unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer. That book—and the insights I’d already gleaned—accompanied me to unfamiliar doctor’s offices, airplane terminals, hospital waiting rooms, and the Ronald McDonald House. I couldn’t have asked for a better literary companion for that particular journey.

A few years ago, Crossing to Safety was the book that kept coming up—not because it was a bestseller or buzzworthy—but because all kinds of people I knew in different ways kept urging me to read.

Last summer, Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak was the book I couldn’t escape. I can take a hint, so I ordered a copy and plopped it on my nightstand. (I never read it. In fact, I’d forgotten all about it until I sat down to write this post, but you better believe I’ll have it finished before the week is out.)

So why Ready Player One? I have no idea. I may not find out for weeks, or months, or maybe it was just a fluke (but I doubt it). I just know that books—like many other wonderful things—move in mysterious ways, and I’d do well to pay attention.

I want to know when this has happened to YOU. Has there been a time when you felt like you just couldn’t escape from a book? What was it, and why did you need to read it?