TRUE GRIT, by Charles Portis

True Grit by Charles PortisA truly delightful and entertaining book. This adventurous tale of fourteen year old Mattie Ross and her single-minded pursuit to avenge the death of her father is one for the ages and for all ages of readers. On one level, there is a simple straight-forward plot that tells a wonderful story. Yet, there is another level on which Portis offers up observations and commentaries on issues of morality, justice, and human nature. Most are subtly woven into the narrative or dialogue, often with a dry dead-pan humor that left me chuckling out loud. There are, however, a couple of overt passages where Mattie delivers a miniature Sunday School lesson complete with encouragement to look up certain Bible verses which back up her position or ideas.

Despite her pious notions of right and wrong, Mattie shows no compunction in her hiring of the meanest and less than up-standing U.S. Marshal around to accompany her on her trail of vengeance. Narrated and re-told by on older Mattie, the fourteen year old’s voice for the most part dominates the story, simultaneously revealing both a naivete appropriate to her age and wisdom beyond it. Written with language, setting, and characters true to its time and place, i.e. Arkansas and Indian Territory of a post-Civil War West, Portis artfully delivers on themes and issues that are relevant to any time and place.

First published in 1968, this book has since been made into a movie twice, first in 1969 and most recently in 2010. I have yet to see either one, and thus can offer no commentary on the merit of either one. They are both on my to be seen list, however, and I will certainly post an update when that task is complete.

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CALEB’S CROSSING by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine BrooksBrooks once again takes a kernel of historical fact and uses it to unfold a compelling narrative. The kernel in this case is that in 1665 Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. The rest of the book, including Caleb’s friendship with Bethia, the novel’s narrator, flowers from the author’s story-tellying prowess. Caleb and Bethia forge their secret friendship prior to his joining her family’s household to receive educational and religious instruction from her minister father in the settlement of Great Harbor, known today as Martha’s Vineyard. Circumstances then allow her to accompany Caleb and her brother Makepeace to Cambridge where she is able to remain as a sisterly companion and confidant to the young Native American youth trying to make his way in a culture foreign to his upbringing.

It is through their interactions, discussions, and mostly Bethia’s innermost musings that Brooks examines the clash of culture, thought, and religious belief ever-present in the novel. Outwardly, Bethia perserveres in her Puritan rearing while inwardly questioning if the white settler’s ways are in fact superior in every aspect. Similarly, she also struggles within the confines of strict societal norms for women regarding education and the ability to make her own personal choices.

Brooks provides all the right elements for an engaging, wonderful reading experience. The setting is described in rich, illustrious detail, while a well paced plot provides pertinent revelations when and where they are best suited. In addition, she populates the novel with complex, multi-dimensional people who are believable, imperfect and thus fully humanized making them accessible for the reader to connect to. Her dedication to historical research shines through in her attention to detail, both in language and prevailing thoughts and beliefs of the period in question.

As with her other novels, one should not expect a mushy, feel-good story. There is plenty of pain, sorrow, and loss interspersed with moments of love, peace, and contentment. It is the embodiment of life’s journey in all of its trappings. Compelling and creative, Caleb’s Crossing is a journey worth taking.

GIRL READING by Katie Ward

Girl Reading by Katie WardGirl Reading is an imaginative book that demands the attention of an imaginative reader. Spanning the centuries from 1333 to an imagined future of 2060, each self-contained (yet subtly inter-connected) story encapsulates a portrait or a picture of a girl or woman engaged in some fashion with a book or the act of reading. What, why, or even if they are actually reading the book plays a lesser part than the title suggests. Or, perhaps, plays a larger part than the reader may at first recognize. For that is the beauty and magic of this book.

Each story contains quite enough framework and materials for a sturdy, completely whole structure fully capable of standing tall on its own merit.  Yet, simultaneously they each posess the power to expand and open hidden crevices wherein the reader can pour in his or her own musings and suppositions.  While it may be true that any well-written book can do the same, Ward writes in such a way that I found this to be one of the most malleable reading experiences to date. What is said is remarkably rich in its own merit. But, what is not said and just ever so slightly alluded to is limitless.

Ward brings the power of visual art to the written page, with each story a canvas of innumerable interpretations and a narrative prose applied with poetic brush strokes. Connecting not just eras in time, but also diverse classes and stations in life, the filament that binds all these women together may at times seem tenuous, but is in fact ever present. They have nothing in common and yet they have everything in common.

If you are looking for a thought-provoking experience that poses more questions than answers regarding the human experience, this is the perfect book to settle into a quiet corner to engage with, not just read.

PROPHECY- THE FULFILLMENT by Deborah A. Jaeger

A pregnant teenage girl, Jillian, claiming she’s still a virgin. Stephen, a student embarking on his PhD in Theology. Both experiencing odd vision-like dreams. Their lives intersect due to Jillian’s father being Stephen’s mentor in his graduate studies. Though Stephen initially recognizes Jillian as the girl from his vision, he keeps quiet. Later, they both realize and acknowledge that their dreams have been separately preparing the two of them for a shared purpose. Throw in a spate of miraculous healings whose source is traced back to Jillian’s amniotic fluid, and you have the story line of Prophecy – The Fulfillment by Deborah A. Jaeger.

I truly wanted to like this book. I thought the premise of exploring a modern day reaction to a Mary and Joseph scenario would be quite intriguing. And it was to some degree. I think the book posed and attempted to answer what some of the questions and implications of the intersection of current science, religious understanding, and even politics to such an event would be. In this regards, it achieved a certain level of admirable success in exploring issues of faith, doubt, and the gritty details of how people react when their realities are shaken. The fact the book prodded me towards my own self-reflection in this regards gives it a measure of worth. I imagine most, if not all, thoughtful readers would be prodded in this direction as well.
With that said, however, I have to admit there were problems that kept me from fully embracing this book and putting it high on my recommendation list. Simply put, it lacked an editorial polish that could have really helped it shine. There were far too many trite phrases, unrealistic or stilted dialogue, and grammar issues to easily ignore. It read like a really good first or second draft that with a little work could be really great. I don’t pretend to be an expert editor in my own right, yet there were just too many sections that made me cringe that it unfortunately took away from an otherwise good story. My final complaint has to do with the ending, which just didn’t seem to mesh well with the rest of the story. With all the build-up, the narrative account of the actual fulfillment of the prophecy seemed forced, and way too anti-climactic.

To sum up: a decent story with some redeeming qualities, yet lacking finesse. I wouldn’t dissuade others from reading, yet do not feel compelled to actively encourage it either. I am open to trying other books by this author.