Summer 2017 Reading Round-Up: 5 Recommendations

I didn’t post blog content this summer, but I did continue reading. To start off my blogging return I’m passing along five book recommendations for your to-be-read stacks. These books stuck out from all the others that I read. Have you read any of these already? What did you think?

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee – this book has the dubious honor of being the first book in a very long time that was over 400 pages but that I didn’t feel would have benefited from a significant editing chop to it’s content. Every word, every sentence, and every leap forward was planned and executed precisely. I’m taking the rest of the review straight from my Instagram post:

“In Pachinko, Min Jin Lee tells the story of a Korean family living in Japan through the twentieth century. The story begins in Korea with a young girl, Sunja, of a poor but respected family. The wealthy and mysterious Hansu impregnates her before mentioning his wife and three daughters at home in Japan. He promises to take care of Sunja and the child, but he cannot give his name to them. Sunja refuses. A sickly but kind preacher offers the unthinkable and she accepts. From there her life and the family they create move to Japan with the preachers’ brother and wife. Decades and deaths mount, struggles and secrets disrupt, and identity — that which each is born with and that which they choose – compel their saga onward.

The story is told by the rhythm of a heartbeat – with the steadiness of expansion and the tension of contraction. The story expands and contracts with people and themes; it expands and contracts through history and geography; and it expands and contracts with the minutiae and mundane to the sweeping and significant.

Beautiful and memorable. Recommend.”

Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James – In passionate and focused writing, Carolyn Custis James lays out the argument for women to be viewed in their rightful role as ezers – warriors. She looks with thoughtful and concerned eyes at the church. James maintains a firm authority for the place of women alongside men in God’s vision for humanity. Her respectful approach and analysis are notable, and her refusal to take a side in the linguistic gymnastics of egalitarian vs. complementarian sides of church politics was respectable and added to the credibility of her intentions. Of the various “feminist” books, and particularly those from a Christian perspective, this one stands out. It is empowering, affirming, and good.

Rolling Blackouts by Sarah Glidden – When I first engaged with this graphic novel I wondered if this form of storytelling was appropriate or useful for the topic, but Glidden paces the reader carefully while layering complex narratives, disturbing history, and personal experiences. It is a novel for anyone grappling with current events but most importantly for those interested in the role of media and/or students of journalism and communication. The questions Glidden raises through the eclectic conversations and perspectives that she includes about responsibility, justice, integrity, and ambiguity are uncomfortable, difficult, and important.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – This is another multi-generational novel that deserves a read. From Ghana to the United States, through colonization and the slave trade, among work and education, and by plane from the United States to Ghana, Gyasi weaves her tale through the descendants of one Asante woman named Maame, starting with two daughters. Each chapter introduces readers to another descendant in a continuing chronology. Within the limited space of a book’s chapters and a person’s own story, Gyasi considers the bonds of four-hundred years. She skillfully selects the right moment of each character’s development to insert them in the story, thus moving the story forward while giving the reader a micro-perspective on the critical points of each generation’s progress. It is, to be sure, a grand undertaking. How does one connect 400 years of history in a way that is palpable, intimate, and provocative? In attempting this feat, Gyasi shows readers how that which come before us influences who we are, and how it motivates what our future might be. Homegoing is a work of historical fiction that is a credit to both fiction and history, playing on what is necessary in both of them to link compelling narrative with serious times.

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson – The siege of Leningrad is the longest recorded siege of a city – 872 days. And while the staggering horror of surviving is not glossed over in Anderson’s descriptive, but not gratuitous telling, the spirit of the people is most worthy of preservation. Amidst blistering cold, hunger that was leading some to insanity, corpse-eating, or even people-eating for survival, and the incessant drone of Nazi bombardment, Leningrad’s fought back with community, reading, and a fierce commitment to withstanding the enemy’s onslaught.

Through this, Shostakovich worked on his fifth symphony–one for the city he loved. His history under Stalin’s terror was pockmarked with accusations, deaths, threats, and insecurity. He could not know how his work would be received from one performance to the next; still, he composed onward.

Such unstable and secretive times created an environment of uncertainty and suspicion and Shostakovich is rendered here as equally as complex as the environment in which he found himself. His music gave voice to oppression and resistance, but his forced war ditties suggested his groping to do what it took to survive- even sacrificing the integrity of his musical talents. His generosity to others and activism for their safety spoke to his compassionate character; forced apologies and signing contrived documents show a willingness to project a different public message in order to ensure his family’s safety. In such circumstances, even the composition of Shostakovich’s story is challenged by questionable sources and motives. Author M.T. Anderson acknowledges those difficulties outright and charges ahead. Documents, testimonies, and no doubt, intense study come together in a masterful work of history, music, and intimacy. Anderson keeps readers abreast of the distinction between what people knew then and what we have learned now. He explains musical narratives and culturally what the music would speak to Soviets at the time. He includes relevant geo-political details for broad context and deeper analysis with the same eye toward meaningful first-person accounts and details for readers to appreciate the weight of these times.

Symphony for the City of the Dead is a powerful telling of a remarkable people in extraordinary circumstances.

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3 thoughts on “Summer 2017 Reading Round-Up: 5 Recommendations

  1. Homegoing is such an amazing book. It was the best frontlist book I read last year. I started reading Half the Church a few years ago but then I had to return it to the library and never got around to finishing it. The part I read was good though. I’d like to revisit it sometime.

    1. I appreciated the balanced writing of Half the Church, and I’m going to explore some of the author’s other works. It seems to me that those writing “Christian” books should reflect a “Christ-honoring” tone in the process. I’ve read a few recently that miss that mark completely and whatever argument they’re trying to convey gets warped or missed entirely. Half the Church seemed to get message and tone together for an effective read.

      1. I sensed that from the little of Half the Church that I did read. Jesus Feminist is one of my favorite Christian feminist books for the same reason–the tone is loving and hopeful. Though I do appreciate some feminist snark now and again. (Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood comes to mind.)

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