Continuing the series of posts on my 2019 book list, these are the novels I read. 🙂
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I remember watching the movie (with Gregory Peck) as a child, but I had never read the book. The movie was good but the book—even better. The story is set in the south during the Great Depression and brings to light the racial tensions of that era.
Scout is a young girl whose father is a lawyer. When a young black man is accused of raping a white girl, her father agrees to take the unpopular case. Tension in the town escalates and Scout finds herself in the middle of all the drama, coming to terms with growing up and learning what it means to stand on principles without compromise.
Lee’s novel is a lesson on how to write a novel. I sat down and analyzed her writing style, picking it apart into little pieces and taking notes in order to better my own writing.
The Sea Wolf by Jack London. Wolves seem to figure prominently in London’s action-filled novels. In The Sea Wolf, the savage beast of prey takes a human form. Wolf Larsen is the cruel, feared, and hated captain of the Ghost, a sealing schooner. When by a freak turn of events a bookish intellectual named Humphrey Van Weyden winds up aboard the schooner, two men, two worlds, and two life philosophies collide sharply in exaggerated contrast to one another. Both fists and philosophical quips fly between them as each seeks to discover what the other is made of.
The theme of this book is philosophically existential in nature: What is the purpose or meaning of life? Is there life after death? What of God? Darwinism and natural selection?
Jack London was a self-proclaimed atheist. But what is most interesting is that he endued both his protagonist and his antagonist with pieces of his own life philosophy—then pitted them against each other in crude juxtaposition. Van Weyden (or “Hump” as he comes to be referred to) is an idealist, an altruist; one who believes in immortality, in God, in the goodness of life.
Wolf Larsen is the atheist, the materialist, prominently exalting a selfish individualism and hedonism as his virtues and seeing life in every form as a Darwinian, crawling “yeast,” agreeing with “the Preacher” (whom he loves to quote) that “all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” He compares himself to Lucifer and proudly defies his Maker.
London himself embodied the idealism and altruism of “Hump,” and the atheism of the Wolf. The book almost seems to read like an inner argument of the author with himself. Perhaps the most telling scene is when Wolf Larsen, while imbibing a breathtaking scene of nature, reveals his own inner struggle when he says with deep, wistful longing:
“I am filled with a strange uplift; I feel as if all time were echoing through me, as though all powers were mine. I know truth, divine good from evil, right from wrong. My vision is clear and far. I could almost believe in God.”
In his antagonist, London essentially admitted that if there was no God and no immortality, London’s own morality, altruism and idealism were schizophrenic—utterly pointless. He had no answers for this irreconcilable paradox. In the story Wolf Larsen gives expression to his secret desire to be able to see life as his opponent does, but feels there is no hope for him to do so. Did this mirror a conflict in London’s own soul? It seems to read to me as a searching, rather than a declaration; a question rather than a statement.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. Wow. This was not your typical hearts-and-flowers romance novel (though what am I talking about? I’ve never read romance novels, lol). This book had some meat to it: the contrast of sense/wisdom and folly, the elevation of virtue, the condemnation of bad character and unsound judgment.
Elinor, the eldest of the three young Dashwood sisters, is a girl with a good heart and good sense. Marianne, the second, though a sweet, wonderful person, is forcefully driven by her changing feelings and emotions—and loves to have it so. She fully gives herself up to whatever emotion she is feeling without checking it or demonstrating self-restraint if appropriate.
The girls fall in love with two very different men. When all their dreams come crashing down, they have two very different responses to their heartbreak.
A thoroughly satisfying novel with lots of food for thought.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I loved this novel. The sarcasm, humor, wit, the playful banter, the unforgettable characters. I can see why this has endured as a popular classic.
Miss Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters are in want of husbands in 19th century England—or rather, ahem, “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” When two high-society—and so wonderfully single!—young men move in “next door,” the whole neighborhood is in a flutter.
But when Eliza meets the daunting Mr. Darcy for the first time, she is hardly charmed. His rude, arrogant, and offputting behavior make her quickly decide he is the last man on earth she would ever be prevailed upon to marry.
And so begins this surprising, humorous romance with its many twists and turns.
“There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.”
“And your defect is a propensity to hate everybody.”
“And yours,” he replied with a smile, “is wilfully to misunderstand them.”
Emma by Jane Austen. Jane Austen said of the book’s title character, “I am going to take a heroine who no one but myself will much like.”
She was wrong. For all her foibles and follies, many readers have come to love Emma since the book was first published in 1815.
Emma grows up in a well-to-do family as an intelligent, talented, independent, and attractive young lady with bright prospects. But she has a tendency to trust too much to her own judgment and to meddle in the affairs of others. This well-intentioned meddling soon sets Highbury in a spin as things completely unexpected and beyond her control begin to happen. What will come of it all? Can the confusing web be untangled?
Austen knew how to create living characters—and develop them well. Her characters display good or evil character, and because they are so human, even the heros and heroines are allotted their faults. But the difference between the wise and the foolish in her stories is pronounced: the wise learn from their mistakes, are teachable, and repent; the foolish don’t even recognize their own folly, much less take a course of action to turn from it.
I think her books have endured and are so loved because her characters (while sometimes caricaturized) are highly relatable, because she deftly deals satire and wit, and because the deeper theme of a man or woman’s character—how their actions and attitudes affect themselves and those around them—runs through every page of her novels.
By the Light of a Thousand Stars by Jamie Langston Turner. A friend had recommended this author to me, so I went to the library and chose one of her books at random. 🙂 This story is told in sections from the perspective of four different female characters, each one facing the rough stuff life brings with varying responses.
A theme running through it is the wonder of how God uses our everyday interactions with others to bring people to Himself—and why we should trust Him and believe He will work for good in those around us as we strive to faithfully share Jesus. Those who turn many to righteousness will “shine as the stars forever.”
The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr.
This is an allegory of the battle between good and evil. Chauntecleer the rooster and the other barnyard animals go about their daily lives with no idea that they are keepers of Wyrm, the great evil locked in the center of the earth. It is their job to keep him there.
When a rooster from another farm listens to the wily temptations of Wyrm, Cockatrice is hatched–and all hell breaks loose. Rich in symbolism, this was a great read. (Some language.)
The earth had a face, then: smiling blue and green and gold and gentle, or frowning in furious gouts of black thunder. But it was a face, and that’s where the animals lived, on the surface of it. But under that surface, in its guts, the earth was a prison. Only one creature lived inside of the earth, then, because God had damned him there. He was the evil the animals kept. His name was Wyrm.
Paradise Lost and Other Poems by John Milton. This epic poem by the 17th century Christian writer was the first English poem to be sold by subscription and to be made the subject of a detailed critical study. Milton addresses the problem of evil in the world: the fall of Satan, the sin of Adam and Eve, and the justice and mercy of God the Creator. (My edition also included various early poems, sonnets, etc.)
I enjoyed it, highlighting many of my favorite parts. I realized that in order to get the most out of his works one needs to be well-versed in Greek mythology (which I am not). His many allusions and metaphors draw heavily on this and ancient history. The breadth and scope of the man’s education is itself incredible.
I would have a difficult time choosing my very favorite from the books above, but Sense and Sensibility would definitely be among those I most enjoyed. Favorite novels read in 2019–what are yours?