May 2009: Books Read

1. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. I had never heard of John Irving until I lived in Eastern Europe and saw his books in all the English language bookstores I visited. His overseas publishers are apparently amazing. I picked this particular one up just before my trip to Boston, because i thought it would be fun to read a book set in New England while I went to New England. As usual, I didn’t have as much time to read on the trip as I thought (which was good), and so I didn’t finish it until early May.

The first hundred or so pages went pretty slowly, because there were so few surprises. I had seen the movie Simon Birch, which is based on this book, and the plot of the movie follows the first part of the book pretty faithfully. It became more interesting a couple hundred pages in, when things not contained in the movie started happening. It was a bit bizarre, though, to read about Owen growing up, driving, and smoking, because from the movie I always thought of Owen as an 11-year-old boy.

The scope of the novel was also much larger than I had realized, too. It turned out to be not only a heartwarming tale of life in small-town New Hampshire, but a commentary on the Vietnam War. All in all, it was an interesting read, and I liked how Irving kept turning the screws and leading the story to its inevitable, tragic conclusion. My only complaint is that, by the end of the story, I didn’t find either of the protagonists (Owen or the narrator, John) to be sympathetic. I wasn’t particularly rooting for them, though it was interesting to see how things eventually played out. The main reason why I stopped rooting for Owen was that he screamed at his parents for coming to see him in a nativity play, and this was never explained. He became a much less sympathetic character as a result. The reason why I stopped rooting for John was that by the end of the book he had become whiny and cynical. Maybe Irving portrayed his characters this way on purpose, to make them anti-heroes, but to me it just made the book less enjoyable.

2. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright. This book has been very popular in the past year, and I very much enjoyed reading it. Having gone to Regent, however, this book didn’t really have any “Aha!” moments for me. I was already familiar with the (biblical, but somehow overlooked in modern Christian culture) idea that we are meant not just to go to heaven when we die, but that we are to be resurrected and the New Jerusalem will come to earth.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, though I wish that Wright had spent more time emphasizing the biblical roots of his ideas. He does refer to the Bible quite a lot, especially in chapter 14. He also refers a good deal to longer discussions in his heavier books, like Jesus and the Victory of God and The Resurrection of the Son of God. It’s not that I don’t think his ideas are biblical; I just think that relying heavily on the Bible for every major point would go a long way toward silencing his critics who suspect that he is saying something new and strange. But I suppose there would always be critics, even if there were multiple Bible citations on every page.

3. The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr. This is a novel involving talking animals, and it reminded me of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Unlike Animal Farm, however, this book was not intended to be allegorical. It is just a fantasy involving talking animals, and I thought it was rather a good one. The main character is Chauntecleer the rooster, who rules over a domain that even includes larger animals. He keeps time several times a day, rather like the set prayers that monks do, through his crowing. The narrator tells us that God put Chauntecleer and the other animals in place in order to keep watch over Wyrm, a great evil force that lies deep under the surface of the earth. Chauntecleer and the other animals don’t know anything about Wyrm until Wyrm tries to break free through the agency of his minion Cockatrice, a cross between a rooster and a dragon. It is a story of good vs. evil, and culminates in a huge battle between Chauntecleer and the other animals on one side and Cockatrice and his many serpent children (and ultimately, Wyrm) on the other.

This was a fun book to read, and I’m glad I read it. Wangerin is a good storyteller, and he kept my attention the whole time. The only complaint that I would have, if any, is that the plot moves too quickly. Significant events in the book, like the final day of battle, only take up a few pages. Perhaps Wangerin intended the book for a younger audience than me. I would recommend it for children age 11 (or so) and up.

4. God Will Make A Way: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. I bought this book several years ago, during the summer of 2003 between my year in the Czech Republic and my year in Hungary. At the time, I was not sure what I was going to do after I was finished teaching, and the title really jumped out to me. I never got around to reading it until just now, though.

It is by the authors of the well-known book Boundaries, and it is about what the title indicates: relying on God to make a way when life seems hopeless or just stuck. In the first part of the book, they give several principles to live by, and in the second half they talk about how those principles play out in various areas, like dating, marriage, divorce, addiction and planning for the future. It was not a life-changing book, since much of what I read here I had already read elsewhere, but it was also not a bad book. It was a good reminder of God’s providential care.

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