For a few years I took the Goodreads Challenge. Participants set a goal for the number of books they think they’ll read in the next year and add them to their Read Shelf and add a brief review. This year, I made a conscious decision not to take the challenge. I didn’t need one more deadline in my life.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not reading as much or more than usual, I’m just not posting about it. So here’s what I’ve read in recent months.

First, a bit about my reading habits. I often have at least two and sometimes three books going in as many different formats: print, audio, and e-book. I generally confine my audio “reading” to travel time. My commute is about 20 minutes—multiply that by four round trips a week and the occasional three to four-hour weekend trip to check up on aging parents and I can go through a couple of audio books a month—depending, of course, on their length.

When I had an Audible subscription, I used my points to buy the longest books that piqued my interest—because being Dutch I’m always looking to get the most I can out of a dollar. Click To TweetOccasionally, that strategy resulted in a book that I tired of before I got to the end. But it’s not always my Dutchness that keeps me listening or reading to the end. A book has to be really bad in my judgment for me not to finish it. And don’t look for me to review books I don’t like. While I rarely give a book 5 stars, I’m just as unlikely to post a negative review or a 1-or 2-star rating.

So here’s a sampling of what I’ve read in recent months.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

In early September B(etter) H(alf) and I took a ten-day road trip to Plymouth, Massachusetts, via the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Niagara Falls, Ontario. In anticipation of many hours in the car, we agreed a book on tape would be in order. I’m quite sure that if we’d gone to the library together to pick out a book, we would not have chosen Eleanor Oliphant. And I’ll admit to second guessing my choice in the early chapters. But in the end, we both gave it four stars.

Eleanor Oliphant is a thirty-year-old single woman who has her life together. She holds down a job at an accounting firm, calls her mother faithfully on Wednesday evenings, and spends her weekends eating frozen pizza and drinking vodka and obsessing over a pop star. Rinse and repeat. Everything is fine, thank you very much—until it isn’t.

Then her back story begins to unfold. Eleanor’s upbringing in a series of foster homes has left her with few stable connections. She learned to follow the rules and that’s how she lives her life. Eleanor’s life begins to unravel when she and a coworker witness an accident and she is drawn into someone else’s life. She is amazed to discover that relationships can bring joy into her life and others—but not before she confronts the demons in her past.

Part of the allure for me with this book was listening to the narrator’s Scottish accent and nimbleness with a range of dialects and brogues. But we were just as drawn to the characters—Eleanor, Raymond, the IT guy with a heart, and Sammy, the accident victim who welcomes his rescuers into his family.

Reese Witherspoon has purchased the movie rights to Gail Honeyman’s debut novel which is scheduled for release next year. I’m adding this to my short list of movies to be seen in the theater.

The Mayflower by Nathan Prichard

While we were in Plymouth, we had to check out the independent book store. BH pestered me several times to buy t-shirts as souvenirs for the grands, but I think books make much better gifts. And much of the fun is browsing the children’s book section. So many beautiful and creative options. I’m in awe of the authors who dream up these imaginative stories for children and the illustrators who bring them to life. With those choices made, we headed for the local author section.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower seemed like the perfect selection given our location. Philbrick is an award-winning author who lives on Nantucket. Mayflower was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2007.

Philbrick’s well-researched account of the establishment of Plymouth Colony differs considerably from the sanitized stories we heard in elementary school. The group that arrived in Plymouth Harbor in the fall of 1620 (slightly more than half of the number who had departed England three months earlier) included religious Separatists as well as adventurers who had no interest in the pilgrims’ religious ideas or practices. To survive in this strange new land, they had to figure out how to get along with one another and the local natives. The various Native American tribes in the region were often warring with one another. Much of the new arrivals’ energy was spent just surviving and determining who could be trusted—often through trial and error.

Most of us know the story of the Pilgrims’ first year in the New World—their “fortunate” encounter with friendly Indians who taught them how to raise crops and later joined the colonists for a thanksgiving meal—which likely did not include turkey. But I for one did not know the rest of the story—how the relationships with and among the local tribes disintegrated, prompted in no small part by the European penchant for owning land. The lamentable history of the mistreatment of Native Americans began almost as soon as the first Europeans set foot on the continent. In the case of Plymouth Colony, the ensuing years culminating in a bloody three-year campaign dubbed King Philip’s War nearly decimated both the colonists and the natives.

From the vantage point of history, Philbrick gives a clear-eyed assessment of the period: The war that was supposed to permanently remove the Indian threat achieved the opposite. Friendly Indians were no longer available to serve as a buffer between natives and those living in the frontier, leaving them open to attack. Defenseless, the colonists who once functioned as an autonomous enclave of Puritanism were forced to ask the British for assistance. Within a decade after King Philip’s War, James II appointed a royal governor to rule New England, and by 1692 Plymouth became part of Massachusetts. “By doing their best to destroy the Native people who had welcomed and sustained their forefathers, New Englanders had destroyed their forefathers’ way of life” (p. 346).

Faith in the Shadows by Austin Fischer

Because I continue to hear of folks who’ve grown up in the church and have abandoned the faith in their young adult years, I’m interested in trying to understand why and how to relate to them. Faith in the Shadows was endorsed by a former colleague whose recommendations I respect.

I appreciate theologians who are willing to tackle the hard subjects. My thesis about why so many walk away from the faith is that the faith we’ve raised them with doesn’t permit them to ask the hard questions life throws at them. Click To Tweet And that’s Fischer’s approach as well.

A pastor, he is honest about his own struggles with faith, but does not see them as a reason to leave the faith. He tackles the big issues: making sense of evil, believing when God feels far away, reconciling science and scripture, and confronting the materialism and skepticism of our age. I may not always come down exactly where Fischer does on every point, but I appreciate his honest introspection. In the end, he sides with Kallistos Ware and opts for faith even when he can’t prove it because “it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder” (p. 159).

Swimming Between Worlds by Elaine Neil Orr

Am I the only one who downloads more e-books than she reads? Perhaps because there are so many $1 and $2 downloads available, I tend to have a good number of books on Kindle that are partially read and may never be finished. It’s easier for me to abandon an e-book that I’ve spent so little on than a hard copy or a library rental. But I could not quit reading Swimming Between Worlds. Orr’s birth and childhood in Nigeria come through in her writing and add an element to plot and character that kept me engaged.

Swimming is a Southern coming-of-age novel set in the era of the American Civil Rights movement. Tacker, a local sports hero, was sent home from an engineering internship in Nigeria and is trying to figure out what’s next in his life. Kate, a recent college graduate, is coming to terms with the deaths of her parents. Their lives intersect with each other and Gaines, a local African-American, drawn into the movement for freedom and equality.

Orr captures the conflict between the segregated South as well as the gulf between the racially blind culture of Nigeria and the Winston-Salem that Tacker returned to. Even 50 years after the 1965 Civil Rights Acts, we still confront many of the prejudicial attitudes that Orr unpacks in Swimming.

I do have one bone to pick with Orr. That is the phrase she uses to convey a sense of foreboding or apprehension in Kate—a “cool lozenge in the lower right chamber of her heart.” If she’d used it once, I could have paused, shaken my head, and gone on, but it became an annoying “theme.” Finally, I just wanted Kate to swallow that thing and be done with it. That was enough for me to give this a 3- rather than a 4-star rating, but don’t let that keep you from reading it.

What have you read lately?

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