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    Books & Reading, Mother's Education

    The 2017 Afterthoughts Book Awards

    January 4, 2017 by Brandy Vencel

    It’s that time again! Every single year, I have a hard time deciding on my favorites. Part of the problem is that each year I get a little bit pickier about the books I choose to read. This means that almost every single book on my list is absolutely wonderful. How do I choose? It’s so hard.

    This year, I simply couldn’t choose. The problem is that I finished my Christmas book from 2015 in early January 2016, making The Island of the World an contender for this year. And then I finished Laurus in December 2016, making it also a contender for this year. The only acceptable solution was what I did there at the end.

    I always kick off the year with my book awards. All of the books I read last year were really quite good! Here's my list of the very best.

    Best Read Aloud

    This one was easy to choose. We adored these stories. When an old couple’s five sons die fighting in the Civil War, all of the orphaned grandchildren “come home” to the farm in Maine to live. These stories are not only a humorous and interesting compilation of their many adventures, but also an instructive glance into post-Civil War culture.

    Best Biography

    I had a number of biographies to choose from this year, but this one was by far the most interesting to me. To be honest, it was the science aspect rather than the actual life story so much. So maybe I should have given it a science award? I dunno. Anyhow, it was a fascinating book and I loved it.

    Best Fiction

    One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

    This is a thin little novel, and I read it all in a single plane ride. It was oh so good. It reminded me a tiny bit of parts of The Island of the World, but it was far easier to read. It’s an interesting picture of life in a Siberian work camp, and by the end of it, you really get a feel for what daily life was like — and how quickly we can be dehumanized by circumstances. Also: I have yet to meet a Russian novel I didn’t like.

    Best Theology

    On the Incarnation by Athanasius

    Since I was reading Athanasius, no other book in this category really had a chance. On the up side, C.S. Lewis wrote the introduction (which is amazing), and so this is a way of giving him an honorable mention. He deserves an award, except that he really can’t compete with Athanasius! Poor Lewis. Anyhow: Athanasius. I cannot recommend this highly enough. So good.

    Best Health Book

    Pottenger’s Cats: A Study in Nutrition by Francis Marion Pottenger Jr.

    I didn’t really expect this to be riveting reading, but it turns out it kept me on the edge of my seat. I was utterly fascinated. Of course, I love a good health book, so there’s that. I’ve been thinking a lot about minerals, so this sort of fit with that. On the other hand, I’m not sure we can extrapolate much for humans from cats — other than that eating the appropriate food would be helpful. I guess what I mean is that I don’t think we can extrapolate a proper human diet from observing cats. The principles would apply, though.

    Best Education

    Run, don’t walk, and get yourself a copy of this book if you don’t have it! You can read my thoughts on the book here. The short version is that I read it all in a short period of time and it felt like a vacation. It was truly a balm to my soul.

    Books of the Year

    The Island of the World by Michael D. O’Brien
    Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin

    First, The Island of the World. I already wrote about how it helped me grow a soul. It is a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching read. It’s not for everyone, I don’t think. But for those who make the journey all the way to the end of this 800+ page tome, there are some worthy rewards.

    ::: SPOILER ALERT :::

    Laurus, on the other hand, is briefer and less painful. I don’t think I’ll be writing a full review, so I’ll say some about it here. It felt to me like I was walking through a painting. It was almost surreal, and the world in its pages was thick — I was wading through paint. It was so beautiful, and also so moving. Some of the devices used by the translator — most notably dialog with no quotation marks and Old English spelling — had a particularly haunting effect. It made me less certain. I was not always sure what was real; it often felt like a dream.

    The main character, Arseny, becomes something like a saint by the end. He is both admirable as well as tragic. Early in the book, he impregnates the woman he loves, isolating her from the Church, and when she dies, she dies in their sin. Their son is stillborn; there is no consolation. Arseny inexplicably (to me — his worldview is assumed and never explained) believes he alone has the power to redeem her. I kept wishing he would find the truth of the Gospel — that it is Jesus who saves, and that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. But, alas, Arseny’s doctrine is a hard master.

    There is a particularly poignant scene in the book that is emblematic of Arseny’s life and world — this world without the Atonement. Arseny is copying manuscripts during the period of his life in which he is a monk. The manuscript tells the tail of a warrior who committed fornication and then died:

    He also saw two fine young men in white robes and his soul flew into their arms. And they raised his soul into the air and led him through a series of ordeals, carrying with them a small chest containing this warrior’s good deeds. And for each wicked deed there was, in the chest, a good deed and it would be taken from the chest, to cover the cost of the wicked deed. But the warrior lacked enough good deeds for the last ordeal, which was related to fornication.

    It is strange to encounter a world that knows of God and knows of Christ and yet is still hopeless. There were times when I felt such grief — was this really how the world was for Russia in this time? I wanted to comfort them with the words of Paul:

    God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them…

    There was no need for the chest of deeds, for Christ’s chest is full to overflowing and ready to cover all.

    Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.

    When you read Laurus, you enter a medieval world, a medieval mentality. It is sometimes harsh and brutal. It is also glorious. It’s a world worth visiting, even though we can only do so through books. Highly recommended.

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  • Reply Lisa W. January 18, 2017 at 5:19 pm

    Did you know there is a sequel to Stories from the Old Squire’s Farm called Sailing on the Ice?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 18, 2017 at 7:53 pm

      Yes! We read that one, too! We liked it, but I think over all we liked the first one better. Not that I would dissuade anyone from reading both! I am glad we read both. BUT if someone wanted to pick only one I’d pick the first one. 🙂

  • Reply Today January 15, 2017 at 6:45 pm

    I am Russian Orthodox. I haven’t read Laurus but based on what I read here I can say that this reminds me of the life of St. Xenia of Petersburg. The Orthodox believe that we don’t know where the soul is, so we pray for our dead asking God to forgive them their sins. We pray to our saints because these are the people the Church has confirmed, glorified, as being with Christ. Usually glorification happens because of miracles. We pray to our saints asking them to pray for us to God. In Orthodox understanding the heavenly part of the Church and the earthly are very interconnected.

    Brothers Karamazov and other Dostoevsky novels help get a good understanding of Russian Orthodox spirituality. The best way is probably to read writings like My Life in Christ by St. John of Kronstadt. He’s just amazing.

    It’s interesting that you have so many Orthodox readers ?

  • Reply Diana January 7, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    Updated my Goodreads “want to read” list! Thanks, Brandy.

  • Reply tess January 5, 2017 at 6:59 pm

    Regarding Laurus, I think you’re right, Lisa, when you say that background colors the interpretation of this novel.

    I read it in terms of kenosis– the voluntary self-emptying of Christ, spiritual podvig– voluntary ascetic struggle that joins Christ in that self-emptying, and the holy fool, whose actions are a divinely sanctioned way of shocking us out of our spiritual lassitude.

    I would disagree that the character’s (or the author’s) intent was to perform salvation outside of Christ– rather, there is an Eastern Orthodox understanding of salvation as having something much more than an individual character. We don’t sin in isolation (pebbles in ponds), and like St. Paul we say with spiritual truth that we are each “chief of sinners”… so there is a very real sense in which our salvation is not just between “me and God,” but that each of our salvations are also part of each other. It’s that kind of participation, both in the life of God and in the life of Ustina, that I think is being demonstrated in the life of Arseny.

    I wish I had my copy handy, but it’s currently lent out! 🙂

    • Reply Rebekah January 6, 2017 at 1:55 pm

      ^^this! What Tess said.
      And I would say that when you read Laurus you enter an Orthodox world even more than entering a medieval world. Had I read Laurus while a protestant (I was reformed all my life till 3years ago) I would have come away with many of the same thoughts that you wrote here. But the Orthodox view is very different. Have you read The Brothers Karamasov? Also an extremely Orthodox book.

      • Reply Lisa A January 6, 2017 at 2:12 pm

        I agree. It does draw one in to an Orthodox world for sure.

        I like what Tess said above about our salvation not being so individual as is typically understood. That’s a good way to describe what was happening in the book. In fact it gives me a better understanding of all the strange visions that were scattered throughout the book. And Brothers K brings this theme in as well.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 6, 2017 at 3:09 pm

      Very interesting!

      I don’t think it’s so much that I don’t have room (theologically speaking) for us to affect one another in salvation as that Ustina was dead. I know that, being Reformed, I think about it differently. I totally grant you that. 🙂 But my confusion was more in regard to her being dead — it actually reminded me more of Catholicism, with her seeming (to me) as if she were in some sort of Purgatory that he was trying to help her out of.

      So, within the Reformed tradition, soteriologically we say that we are saved (justification), we are being saved (sanctification), and we will be saved (glorification). The first two are while we are alive and in this I see how we affect others and others affect us. In regard to the first, I think of how Paul raises the obvious question of how someone can be saved if he doesn’t hear the Gospel and how he could hear if no one preached, etc. And in the second, there are all sorts of ways, of course. But those two are in this life — and the third is future tense in that it’s not just after death, but after the Resurrection.

      So. That is where it comes from for me. Is there something that I am missing? I mean, if Ustina were still alive it would have made a lot more sense to me. I’m sure that is could be that I cannot get my Reformed brain around Orthodoxy, but I thought I’d try. 😉

      • Reply Rebekah January 6, 2017 at 4:06 pm

        We Orthodox do not hold to purgatory, but we do pray for our dead and we believe that our prayers aid the souls as they journey to heaven (there is a journey, we do not instantaneously appear in heaven). We also ask the dead (saints) to pray for us –they’re much more alive than we are, anyway.
        Just so I don’t hijack this thread with theological discussions– if you really do want to try to get a better understanding of Orthodoxy, there’s a good interview with an Orthodox priest (formerly a reformed pastor! Grew up PCA! Totally speaks my language haha) on “an Orthodox view of Protestantism.” It’s super helpful in understanding ancient Christianity. There’s a part 2 also.

      • Reply Lisa A January 6, 2017 at 6:50 pm

        This is a simple and short article that might help you to see where we’re coming from, Brandy:

        We know that our God is the God of the living and that he has already trampled down death by death. So while everyone still dies a physical death, and the soul and body are separated until they are reunited at the final judgment, there is a sense in which the dead and the living are not really separated anymore. Both the saints (dead) who have gone on before us and the living make up the body of Christ. So our prayers can affect them, just as theirs can affect us. And that’s about the best I can do. The rest is a mystery to me (and we EO do love Mystery! 😉 )

      • Reply tess January 7, 2017 at 10:42 am

        Brandy, I do understand how someone with a Reformed background would read Laurus so differently!

        Let me try to share how an Orthodox might think about these things, without using technical theological language. Sometimes I think we Christians injure each other most (especially all of us amateur theologians!) when we use such language– mostly because we each use the same set of vocabulary terms in very different ways.

        With regards to the effectiveness of prayers for the dead, the Orthodox tradition has a high focus on the idea that Christ has destroyed the power of death— so to be alive in Christ is to continue to be alive in Christ, even after the physical death pf the body in this life. There is a deep feeling of connectedness to the Christians of all ages for us– as we participate in the divine life (2 Peter 1:4), we are also participating in the lives of each other.

        So there’s a sense that praying for someone who has died, or asking them to pray for us (which is really what we’re doing when we’re “praying to the saints”) is simply an act of love, an extension of the love we have for them made possible because we are all alive in Christ. So Arseny dedicating his spiritual athleticism in the name of the life he stole from Ustina is, in a very basic sense, him actually learning how to love Ustina for real, and not just the imaginary feelings he thought were his love for her when she was living.

        There’s no neat explanation that our prayers can save someone from damnation. But there is a lot of hope and trust that acts of love are the currency of our existence in the Christian life.


        PS– Thanks so much for the work you put into this blog!

        • Reply Rebekah January 9, 2017 at 7:39 am

          ^^ everything Tess writes is golden 🙂

        • Reply Brandy Vencel January 9, 2017 at 8:51 am

          I wanted to thank you all for your explanations! I really *do* want to understand! I disappeared for a couple days because I caught a bug. Now to find time to watch the video… 🙂

  • Reply Melissa Greene January 4, 2017 at 7:34 pm

    “I have yet to meet a Russian novel I didn’t like.”

    Hey Brandy, you should try Anna Karenina by Tolstoy.

    I read it last summer with my Schole Sisters, but have thought of the characters often since. I don’t typically re-read books, but I think I could read this again some day in the future.

    Thanks for your list! I love to see what others have read and enjoyed 🙂

    Blessings in the new year,

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 5, 2017 at 11:16 am

      Yes! I actually cut my teeth on Anna Karenina as a teenager. It was my first Russian love. But I haven’t read it in probably 15 years now (reread in early 20s but don’t remember that reading as well). Maybe I should read it again this year!

      And I LOVE that your group read it together. SUCH a good idea! ♥

  • Reply Steph January 4, 2017 at 4:00 pm

    Hi Brandy, when you say ‘brutal’ does the book Laurus contain descriptions of unusual violence etc? Or do you mean brutal in another way? Thanks

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 4, 2017 at 4:31 pm

      Hi Stephanie,

      I think the descriptions of violence aren’t quite as bad as Island of the World — and they definitely aren’t as frequent, but still there are definitely descriptions. It’s not in-your-face gory, but I mentioned it because I can see how it could bother some people…

  • Reply Lisa A January 4, 2017 at 1:22 pm

    I think that he wasn’t exactly trying to save Ustina as much as trying to repent in her place, for her sake, especially since she wanted to go back to church and it was he who denied her that. I can see how it could be read the way you read it, because the emphasis was pretty heavy handed, but ultimately I don’t think him trying to explicitly *save* her was the bottom line. As always I suppose one’s background colors the perception, doesn’t it? 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 4, 2017 at 4:34 pm

      I *did* wonder about that — I mean, I definitely see him as the root issue since she desired to repent and he told her they’d do it later. And oh how heartbreaking it was when later never came! All of that to say, I see what you are saying. I went back and forth throughout the whole book — I wondered a lot if it was more a form of penance. But then some things at the end made me think he thought he was saving her again. I do think I could be wrong! 🙂

  • Reply Phyllis January 4, 2017 at 3:43 am

    Thanks for mentioning Laurus earlier! I’m not very far into it, but I’m already enjoying it. Somehow the style reminds me a bit of Umberto Eco: medieval, beautiful, and a bit bizarre. So, they translate the old parts into old English? That would be a good way to do it.

    Island of the World is one of my favourites, too.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 4, 2017 at 4:36 pm

      So, Phyllis, are you reading it in Russian? I am curious about how it reads. If you are, I would love for you to compare it with the translation and tell me what you think! I read the translator’s remark at the beginning and it was so interesting.

      So…only the spoken words are in old English (and not when the spoken words are in the modern era, which happens briefly in one part). But yes: totally a bit bizarre. At one point I felt like it had suddenly become so surreal it was a fantasy novel, but then it slowly backed out of that. Fascinating writing.

      • Reply Phyllis January 5, 2017 at 9:24 am

        Yes, Russian. It reads beautifully. So far, the old language parts are short enough that they’re not hard for me. If they get into any long speeches or anything like that, I’ll have to do some researching; those kinds of words aren’t in a regular dictionary. (There’s one author I like who tends to throw in longer old “documents,” but he gives clues to help us modern readers figure them out. I don’t know what Vodolazkin will do….)

        I noticed that my mother’s library has the Kindle version, and I use her card to check out books there, so I will compare. That will be interesting. I think there’s a waiting list for it, though.

        Have you read Eco’s books? Did you get that same feel, or is it just me?

        • Reply Brandy Vencel January 5, 2017 at 11:17 am

          Interesting! I think I thought the translator was making a call; I didn’t realize Vodolazkin had used Old Russian (if that is what it is called).

          I have read a little Eco, but not Name of the Rose. That is on my list for the future!

          I look forward to hearing your thoughts if you ever get to compare them.

        • Reply Brandy Vencel January 5, 2017 at 11:18 am

          Oops. Not sure that was clear — I meant comparing the Russian with the English. Though if you want to compare with Eco, I’d listen to that, too! 😉

          • Phyllis January 5, 2017 at 11:42 am

            I understood. 🙂

            I think the Eco book it’s making me think of is Baudolino, but it’s been ages since I read that. Just vague feeling-memories are left.

          • Brandy Vencel January 5, 2017 at 11:43 am

            I haven’t even heard of that one! I will have to look it up. The Eco book I remember reading — which might be the only one I’ve read — is nonfiction. It’s called something like Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages…

          • Phyllis January 9, 2017 at 7:57 am

            I read a section in English. It’s okay. I like it better in Russian, but the translation seems fine to me. In the translator’s note there was something about a person who encouraged him to amp up his slang; I would say that he should have done the same thing with his Old English. The Old Slavonic is more different from modern Russian than what he’s showing, I think.

          • Brandy Vencel January 9, 2017 at 8:53 am

            You make me wish I could read Russian. Thank you for sharing this, Phyllis — so fascinating! ♥

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