Poverty and money, men and women, limited-options and Victorian-era spinsterhood: The Odd Women is a thought-provoking, character-driven novel that explores what happens when women lack opportunities for independence

At the end of the 1800s there was a much talked of social crisis: a surplus of spinsters. Gissing’s book is an incredibly humanising and nuanced exploration of their state and limited prospects.

The Odd Women by George Gissing is a late Victorian novel that explores the personal and social implications of a surplus of spinsters. It follows the struggles, fortunes and (limited) choices of the three Madden sisters, whose father’s sudden death leaves them in the situation of many financially straightened gentlewomen. Theirs is a steady descent into poverty as age and strain reduce their job opportunities to increasingly poorly paid drudgery, their only possible relief the further chanciness of marriage. Meanwhile, their childhood friend, Rhoda, faces the situation from another perspective, committed to women’s rights, financial independence and life-long singleness.

This was a thought-provoking, nuanced and compassionate exploration of women, power, marriage, money, emotional abuse and singleness in late 1800s England. The character development was excellent. I had to check Gissing wasn’t a pseudonym for a female author because of the level of insight and sympathy for women. Emotionally heavy-going at times (particularly its portrayal of emotional abuse within marriage) but well worth the read.

Posted in 18th Century, British, Classic, Fiction, General adult audience, Novel, Realism, Social Novel, Victorian | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Universities and uni students are changing: Lukianoff and Haidt provide a compelling argument for some of the fundamental beliefs that are driving the changes in The Coddling of the American Mind

A picture of a brain nestled in wool: Haidt and Lukianoff suggest that over-protecting our thoughts and feelings is ultimately bad for our development and limits our flourishing

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. If you feel it, it must be true. People are either good or evil. In The Coddling of the American Mind Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue that belief in these three ‘Great Untruths’ is growing among iGen (people born after 1995), in American universities and in society at large. Unchallenged, these beliefs threaten open debate, rigorous thought and the well-being of those who believe them. Haidt and Lukianoff explore a bunch of trends they see feeding into the rise of these beliefs and some practical ideas on how we can grow wiser kids and universities. Their argument occasionally came across as overstated when some qualifications could have done with a little more air time. Nevertheless, I found it an incredibly helpful book, that identifies, critically analyses and challenges certain emerging trends in thinking, feeling, understanding and reacting that are increasingly impacting individuals, unis and public debate. Recommend it for anyone working with uni students, iGen new grads or raising kids.

Posted in American, Contemporary, General adult audience, Nonfiction, Social Commentary/Analysis | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Apologetics Updated for our Age and My Favourite Christian Book of 2019: Confronting Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin

Rebecca McLauglin’s excellent take on apologetics updates the questions for the 21st century and tackles the impact of Christianity on minorities, morality and violence as well as the classic questions on suffering, hell and science, among others.

Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion was probably my favourite Christian book that I read in 2019. Using an engaging mix of research, anecdote and personal story, McLaughlin gives nuanced answers to some of the big objections to Christianity of our time. Her answers convey complexity in an engaging way, gently challenge assumptions and consistently and winsomely point to the hope and answers held out in the gospel. McLaughlin is an academic and the extensive footnotes make this book look a bit more intimidating than it actually is to read. Many of her anecdotes involve the spiritual journeys of fellow-academics and that may also seem a bit removed for those who haven’t spent time in a uni setting. However, it makes this book a particularly excellent one for educated people who are considering Christianity or who may have dismissed it without exploring it deeply.

Posted in American, British, Christian, Christian Apologetics, Christian Non-fiction, Contemporary, General adult audience, Nonfiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Insightful, practical, wise and biblical: Untangling Emotions by Groves and Smith

Untangling Emotions is a helpful exploration of feelings and what to do with them from a Christian perspective. Solidly biblical and extremely practical, it challenges some of our unhelpful approaches to emotions and unpacks what different emotions actually tell us.

A terrific book for understanding your emotions and dealing with them wisely and constructively. Solid and meaty in content but readable, engaging and practical in style.

Often our various emotions form a complex tangle, just like the lines of the emotion words in this illustration for Groves' and Smith's book Untangling Emotions
Posted in American, Christian, Christian Living, Christian Non-fiction, Contemporary, General adult audience, Nonfiction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Perelandra by C.S. Lewis: A Christian novel that grips thoughts, feelings and will

Picture of the Green Lady, looking out at the 'fixed land' of Venus in Lewis’s Perelandra. The innocence of a whole world depends on her decision.

I found Out of the Silent Planet slow to get into but ultimately intriguing, enjoyable and thought provoking. In contrast, Perelandra, the second in C.S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, gets quickly into the action, was mesmerizing, suspenseful and thrilling by turns, and riveting throughout.

Ransom is sent to Venus (Perelandra) with an undisclosed mission. There he meets the Green Lady, the majestic and perfectly innocent first woman of that world. But Ransom is not the only earthling to have arrived on Perelandra, and Weston is there at the bidding of a different master.

The account of the temptation that follows could best be described as ‘cosmic theological thriller’: a gripping exploration of temptation, obedience, knowledge and service of God and the nature and effects of sin. If I had to limit my fiction reading to ten books for the rest of my life, I’m pretty sure this would be one of them.

Posted in 20th Century, British, Fantasy, Fiction, General adult audience, Novel, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Slow to Start but Ultimately Intriguing: C.S. Lewis begins his theological speculative fiction trilogy with Out of the Silent Planet

Picture of the eery, unfamiliar beauty of Lewis's Malacandra, the Martian setting of the begining of his Cosmic Trilogy

How would humans respond to other intelligent life if we found it on another planet? How might such life differ from us? How might we react to such differences? How might several such species coexist peacefully on a single planet? Could humans ever become part of such peaceful coexistence? Would such a discovery eliminate the possibility of an all-creating, self-revealing God? What fundamentally makes humans human? These are a few of the questions C.S. Lewis explores in Out of the Silent Planet, the first in the ‘Cosmic Trilogy’.

Short, a bit slow to start, but ultimately an intriguing reflection on humanity, science, revelation, worldview and God.

Posted in 20th Century, British, Fantasy, General adult audience, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inventor of the post box and novel-making machine: Autobiography is the self-told story of one of my favourite Victorian novelists, Anthony Trollope

Prolific novelist and life-long employee of the British postal service, Anthony Trollope deserves to have his profile on a postage stamp!

Autobiography by Anthony Trollope was an easy and amusing read. It focuses on Trollope’s two careers – as post office official and author – with only brief forays into personal life, although Trollope-as-a-person comes through on every page. Part of this book’s appeal is Trollope’s refreshing insistence that novel writing is a trade, like any other, bringing it down to the level of the mundane. He reveals his own methods – writing a set number of thousands of words each day before breakfast – and what he values in novels and novel-writing. He critiques the blinding influence of an established name on critics and publishers. He explains what he sees as his moral duty and responsibilities as an author. He also reflects on various dangers of his era, often themes of his books, many of which remain pertinent. A fair chunk of the book is spent reflecting on the development and circumstances of his various novels, their reception and his own opinion of their quality. This latter focus makes this a book that will be more enjoyable after reading a few of his novels.

Posted in Biography/Autobiography, British, General adult audience, Nonfiction, Victorian | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Problem-solving run amok in Stuck, a quirky picture book by Oliver Jeffers

Kite lands in a tree. But that’s just the beginning of Stuck by Oliver Jeffers…

Stuck, written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, is an absurd picture book about a boy named Floyd, whose kite gets stuck in a tree. The book follows his outrageous problem solving as he tries to get it down.

Posted in 2 years and up, American, Contemporary Children's, Irish, Picture Books, Under 7 years | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pleasant, light reading that leaves me with a warm feeling towards my fellow-human beings: The 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith

Various pleasant storylines radiate out from the characters living at 44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh

The 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith is a modern serial novel published daily in the Scotsman and subsequently in book form. It follows a number of characters in Edinburgh as they drink coffee, negotiate childhood with a hot-housing mother, try to sell paintings, study the habits of pirates in Asia and ponder the ways of people and everyday life. Delightful. Easy to pick up. Easy to put down. Easy to pick up again!

Posted in British, Contemporary, General adult audience, Light Fiction, Scottish, Serial Novel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Climbing trees, cutting your own hair and making messes with all the things you find in the kitchen: Maud Hart Lovelace’s second Betsy-Tacy book beautifully captures the experience of being 8 years old

In the second Betsy-Tacy book, the two friends are joined by their new friend Tib for 8-year-old adventures

Betsy-Tacy and Tib continues Maud Hart Lovelace’s engaging series of early 20th century American childhood. Betsy, Tacy and their new friend Tib are now 8-year-olds. Life is full of adventures, often with their genesis in Betsy’s fertile imagination. In this installment they attempt to learn to fly, build a cubbyhouse, invent a dish called ‘Everything Pudding’ and cut each others’ hair. Again Lovelace captures the experience and tone of childhood, drawing on actual games and stories she shared with her two best friends during her own childhood in the early 1900s in the American mid-west.

Posted in 20th Century Children's, 5 years and up, American, Children's Classics, Novel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment