[This is Day 23 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]
What It Is: A sprawling magical urban fantasy and alternative history novel set in early-19th-century England, in which two magicians’ battle of egos and enchantments lead to disastrous consequences for all involved
Why You Should Read It: This strange and marvelous novel has been described as a cross between Jane Austen and JK Rowling, with a little Charles Dickens thrown in. I think that is a fair analogy. This book has the tone and feel of classic literature, but with the added layer of hundreds (!) of footnotes referencing books and writers who exist only in the world of the story. As a fan of copious footnotes, this was incredibly addicting to me. The story seems to weave in elements of Romantic poets, medieval myths, and historical biography in a way that feels bizarre and yet believable. The main focus of the story is the friendship and eventual rivalry between the conservative and traditional Mr. Norrell and the young upstart magician Jonathan Strange. The battle of these two mindsets and worldviews spills over to change the course of the lives of everyone in their spheres. Cozy up with this one by the fire this winter. It’ll be a treat.
[This is Day 22 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]
What It Is: A 19th-century British drawing-room comedy about upper-class society in which good manners and a good marriage are the ultimate goal of a young woman’s life.
Why You Should Read It: The story of the Bennett sisters and their various loves and heartaches is the most popular of Austen’s books these days, and for good reason. There is something recognizably human in all of these characters, so much that they’re not simply abstract figures on the page but feel authentic and familiar. Jane Austen is a skilled wordsmith, and her use of language is impeccable–the dialogue pops throughout the book. But the reason you should read the book instead of settling for the handful of (admittedly very good) film adaptations is that the narration and commentary throughout the novel are bathed in Austen’s sardonic wit and low-key sarcasm. You miss a lot of this when you watch a film version. This book is a lot funnier than I expected it to be when I first started reading it. Even if you don’t think this type of fiction is your “thing” (and ESPECIALLY if you find yourself disinterested because you consider it a “girl book”), you should definitely check it out.
[This is Day 21 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]
What It Is: The most famous Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie, following the gentleman detective as he investigates a murder that takes place on a passenger train travelling from Istanbul to Paris and seeks to discover which of the dozen or so passengers is guilty of the foul deed.
Why You Should Read It: Agatha Christie is arguably the queen of early-20th-century mystery writers, and one of her most beloved characters is the Belgian sleuth with the impressive moustache, Hercule Poirot. If you’ve never read Christie or her Poirot stories, then Orient Express is a must-read. This story is a great example of a “locked room” mystery, in which a crime has been committed but everyone has an alibi and there’s no possible way it could have been carried out. The finale that pulls all the suspects into one room for a final shake-up from the detective has basically become a trope by now, but the trope originated from stories like this one (as well as Dashiell Hammett’s “Thin Man,” but we don’t need to quibble). It’s an intriguing whodunit that’s perfect for fans of the genre as well as new readers trying out something outside their typical fare.
[This is Day 20 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]
What It Is: A dystopian novel written in 1953 about the silencing of dangerous ideas and what happens when you “start reading books instead of burning them” (to borrow a phrase from Henry Jones Sr.).
Why You Should Read It (Again): “It was a pleasure to burn.” This book has been one of my favorites over the years, but like 1984, I find as I grow older it has become more and more relevant. In the story, Guy Montag, the “fireman” who is tasked with burning outlawed books and related materials, is told by his superior in the firemen’s corps that the reason the book burnings started was because special interest groups found certain ideas and writers offensive. The censorship-by-flame eliminated much of literature, leaving only mindless printed entertainment that itself struggled to compete against the intoxicant of big-screen home theaters. In our day as”cancelling” is becoming commonplace in the world of social media because an author’s ideas or opinions are considered unacceptable, and individuals take to Instagram and Tiktok to post videos of themselves burning the works of such societal sinners…let’s just say you can start to see the pattern forming.
[This is Day 19 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]
What It Is: A dystopian novel from 1949 imagining a society (modeled after Stalinist Russia) in which truth is suppressed and public support is devoted entirely to the all-powerful State, and what happens to an ordinary man who suddenly questions whether or not to follow the crowd.
Why You Should Read It (Again): If you grew up in the American school system, you may have read this one back in high school. You may think you’re familiar enough with it, because you get the references to things like “Big Brother.” But I would strongly encourage you to find another copy and read it again with fresh eyes (as I’m actually about to do, myself). 1984 presents a society in which social messaging is delivered from the top-down by an all-powerful state, going against the prevailing group-think is considered dangerous or radical, and the meanings of words and ideas are rewritten in real time to serve the desires of the state. While it’s become a cliche to say that any social movement you find oppressive is “Orwellian,” I would suggest that in an era when academics are actually discussing on social media why “2+2=4” can be wrong (or racist?), we’ve entered a new and yet oddly familiar situation.
[This is Day 18 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]
What It Is: An examination of the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels regarding what it means to be saved and what that salvation produces in the lives of His followers.
Why You Should Read It: MacArthur applies pastoral wisdom and theological acumen to the question of what it means to “repent and believe” in Jesus. He rejects the notion of “easy believism” (a salvation that requires mere physical assent without demanding life change) and carefully unpacks what the Scripture teaches about Jesus’ lordship over His followers. He hammers home the idea that Christians will be marked by the fruit of a changed heart and life and the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctifying us, so that over time, we reflect more and more the character of Jesus. This book is hard-hitting and bracing, but it’s still such a vital and necessary word for Christians in the 21st century.
[This is Day 17 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]
What It Is: A challenging book about finding out how you can produce or contribute something unique and valuable in your work and life–and why you really should.
Why You Should Read It: Seth Godin is the productiving/marketing Yoda–if you’ve ever seen his blog, it’s like a series of zen koans for business productivity junkies. His books are thought-provoking while being simple and direct, and this one is the best I’ve read of his so far. In Linchpin, Godin argues for making yourself indispensable by figuring out the secret sauce that you bring to your organization and maximizing that. Another useful encouragement in this book is the idea of bringing your humanity to bear in whatever you do–rather than being a cog in a machine, Godin argues that your personality and passion can elevate your work in ways that simple efficiency cannot. Even if you’re not a business/marketing person, Godin’s meditations on the nature of work are worth a think.
[This is Day 16 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]
What It Is: A trilogy of science fiction novels that blend allegory and theology in a sci-fi genre setting that is more mythological than technological. The recurring character, Elwin Ransom, faces questions of moral and metaphysical reality that take on cosmic importance as he is whisked away, sometimes against his will, to far-off planets within the solar system.
Why You Should Read It: I don’t think my description did the series justice. While Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia is obviously his most famous work of fiction, his “Space Trilogy” is wildly underappreciated as a work of allegory and myth-making within a different genre. While these books may be a little slow at times, they are much deeper and more rewarding than they first appear. The sci-fi trappings are charming, reminiscent of something from Jules Verne. Lewis uses the genre elements of distant planets and alien beings to explore ideas of human nature, sin, death, and eternity. His retelling of the fall of man, set on the undulating world of Perelandra, and his descriptions of the eldila, angelic alien beings given charge over planets, capture the imagination. If you enjoy science fiction that’s more metaphysical than technical, this is right up your alley.
[Sorry for the late entry! This is Day 15 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]
What It Is: A thrilling novel about an astronaut stranded and left for dead on a space exploration outpost on Mars, who has to survive for months until a rescue could even be attempted. Think Robinson Crusoe, but in space and with more swearing.
Why You Should Read It: I’ll admit, science isn’t my strong point–I’m a former English major, after all. So I’m sure there have been blog posts and articles written about how this book messes up this or that scientific fact. But following Mark Watney as he MacGuyvers his way around a temporary space station on the Red Planet and explains/narrates his survival strategies was a fascinating walkthrough of applied science in a life or death situation. It sets up one tense scenario after another. Then when [minor spoiler] suddenly the scene shifts to Ground Control and the people on Earth realize Watney’s still alive and begin mounting and effort to rescue him, the book kicks it into overdrive. I really, really enjoyed this one. If you don’t mind the profanity, it’s a wild ride.
[This is Day 14 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]
What It Is: A horror novel, dressed in the guise of a presidential biography (complete with “historical” photos) detailing how the sixteenth American president’s rise to political prominence was particularly impacted by his fight against a faction of vampires using the nascent Confederacy as a way to take control of the American continent.
Why You Should Read It: The year before AL:VH, Grahame-Smith had published Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which seemed to kick off a brief but notable “horror mash-up” trend, spawning several books and a few action movies. While the Jane Austen spoofs of that moment are of middling quality, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was excellent, not only because the horror elements are well-conceived, but because the overall tone of the book is pitch-perfect. The reason it works so well is that it doesn’t feel like a novel, but instead reads like a David McCullough biography, with its academic descriptions of vampire attacks taking on an almost business-like fashion. (Incidentally, this is why the film adaptation failed so miserably; the director and producers tried to reshape the source material into a typical Hollywood three-act narrative structure, including creating an individual villain who would be Lincoln’s final foe in the film’s climax. If they had framed the story as if it were a Ken Burns documentary, it would have been a rousing success.) I know this pick seems a bit out of left field, but trust me: it’s worth a look.