We Know You Remember by Tove Alsterdal

Having requested the second book in this series (You Will Never Be Found) from NetGalley, more about that later, I decided to read the first book, We Know You Remember, and was able to borrow it from library using Libby.

Publisher Summary

It’s been more than twenty years since Olof Hagström left home. Returning to his family’s house, he knows instantly that something is amiss. The front door key, hidden under a familiar stone, is still there. Inside, there’s a panicked dog, a terrible stench, water pooling on the floor: the father Olaf has not seen or spoken to in decades is dead in the bathroom shower.

For police detective Eira Sjödin, the investigation of this suspicious death resurrects long-forgotten nightmares. She was only nine when Olof Hagström, then fourteen, was found guilty of raping and murdering a local girl. The case left a mark on the town’s collective memory—a wound that never quite healed—and tinged Eira’s childhood with fear. Too young to be sentenced, Olof was sent to a youth home and exiled from his family. He was never seen in the town again. Until now.

My Take

It was for the most part an enjoyable mystery exploring crime, relationships and history in a small community where privacy is hard to come by and everyone knowing everything about everybody else can be suffocating. As to why I didn’t give it 4 stars, I think what made it less enjoyable was how I didn’t really like any of the characters; there wasn’t anyone who you were rooting for to use a cliché. I also felt like it was a little jumpy in places but perhaps that was translation.

The central thread of the story was well done from the murder of the father to the unpacking of what happened to the son and how that intertwines with Eira Sjödin’s family. As it progressed the suspense increased and the drama really ratcheted up.

But Eira’s relationship with other investigators and with August was off putting to me. I guess it was supposed to relate to her wrestling with returning home, her career choices, her relationships, etc. But it did not click for me. At times the narrative just didn’t seem to flow. When the story returned to the underlying mystery, it moved again.

As always, your mileage may vary…

Book Review: The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid

I have read a couple of other books by Mohsin Hamid and have found them interesting.  So when I came across his latest book I added it to the TBR list.

Publisher

One morning, a man wakes up to find himself transformed. Overnight, Anders’s skin has turned dark, and the reflection in the mirror seems a stranger to him. At first he shares his secret only with Oona, an old friend turned new lover. Soon, reports of similar events begin to surface. Across the land, people are awakening in new incarnations, uncertain how their neighbors, friends, and family will greet them.Some see the transformations as the long-dreaded overturning of the established order that must be resisted to a bitter end. In many, like Anders’s father and Oona’s mother, a sense of profound loss and unease wars with profound love. As the bond between Anders and Oona deepens, change takes on a different shading: a chance at a kind of rebirth–an opportunity to see ourselves, face to face, anew.

My Take

The odd thing about The Last White Man is that it is better at exploring family dynamics and relationships than saying anything about race or skin color… but perhaps that is the point.

I’m not sure because nothing really is clear in the end. The basic idea, what if people just woke up dark skinned, is thought provoking but everything after is so vague and generic that I am not sure any insights really are brought to light.

What saved it for me was the way the book explored relationships and family during a time of social crisis. The pandemic is definitely a presence as are the riots. I found it interesting to see how the main characters navigated their way through turbulent times in both their relationship and with their parents. But what struck me was how this dynamic was not inherently tied to skin color but anything that causes this type of tension, or questions things that are deeply held, like politics, religion, etc.

The other thing that makes this story sit just outside the debates about race is that having dark skin does not neatly overlap with the concept of race in America. Again, maybe Hamid was just trying to explore all of these issues without focusing too narrowly on one specific issue. But it doesn’t really cohere in the end. Just feels a little too fuzzy.

How to Navigate Life by Belle Liang, Timothy Klein

With a daughter about to graduate high school and a career in something of an awkward transition, How to Navigate Life: The New Science of Finding Your Way in School, Career, and Beyond by Belle Liang and Timothy Klein seemed like a book I should read. I was lucky enough to get a digital review copy from NetGalley and moved it to the top of the TBR pile.

Publisher

Today’s college-bound kids are stressed, anxious, and navigating demands in their lives unimaginable to a previous generation. They’re performance machines, hitting the benchmarks they’re “supposed” to in order to reach the next tier of a relentless ladder. Then, their mental and physical exhaustion carries over right into first jobs. What have traditionally been considered the best years of life have become the beaten-down years of life.

Belle Liang and Timothy Klein devote their careers both to counseling individual students and to cutting through the daily pressures to show a better way, a framework, and set of questions to find kids’ “true north”: what really turns them on in life, and how to harness the core qualities that reveal, allowing them to choose a course of study, a college, and a career.

Even the gentlest parents and teachers tend to play into pervasive societal pressure for students to PERFORM. And when we take the foot off the gas, we beg the kids to just figure out what their PASSION is. Neither is a recipe for mental or physical health, or, ironically, for performance or passion. How to Navigate Life shows that successful human beings instead tap into their PURPOSE―the why behind the what and how. Best of all, purpose is a completely translatable quality to every aspect of life, from first jobs to last jobs and everything in between.

My Take

I struggled a little when rating it on Goodreads. It is probably a 3.5 stars but you can’t do half stars so went with 3. The book contains lots of good advice and ways to think about navigating life (which is good given the title). High school and college students and their parents would benefit from reading it and working through the thought processes outlined in the book.

The main weakness, for me anyway, is that it sits awkwardly between a book for students and a book for parents. Some sections are clearly aimed at parents, mentors, etc. and the voice and tone align with this perspective. Others seemed aimed at students or young people and the voice seems just a little off. Perhaps I am just nitpicking, but a book with two seeming audiences and two authors didn’t always speak with one voice.

I also think the focus on inequality is a bit overdone.

Lastly, it wasn’t always a great read as a straightforward book. Some of the early sections almost feel like a workbook. I could see sitting down with young people and working through the skills and value sections but as an older adult it was a bit of a slog reading through that. Or it could be I should have just stopped and worked through the issues for myself and then with my daughter. Regardless, those sections offer very practical career and college planning type advice about how to understand your skills and values.

I guess what I am saying is that intellectually I can see that there is good advice here but I didn’t always love reading it. It just felt a little too self-helpy if that makes sense.

In short, if you need an earnest but insightful guidance counselor in book form, read this book.

History, Eschatology and Hermeneutics: the Church in a Post-Christendom World

I led the service and gave the sermon at my church last Sunday (July 17, 2022) and it seemed like something that would be useful to have saved somewhere other than Google Docs. So I decided to post it here so I could link to it and reference it in the future.

Jesus is standing before Pontius Pilate inside the palace in Jerusalem.  Bloodied and bruised, a crown of thorns forced on his head and purple cloth draped on his shoulders. Soldiers are slapping and mocking him: “Hail, King of the Jews!”

The religious leaders have stirred up the crowd but Pilate doesn’t see Jesus as a dangerous revolutionary. He goes to speak to them about letting him go. But they are defiant: “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

Pilate brings Jesus out to them and sits down on the judge’s seat: “Here is your king.” Their reply? “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

Pilate asks “Shall I crucify your king?” The answer: “We have no king but Caesar,”

The scene, full of tension, drama and ambiguity, closes: “Finally Pilate handed him over to be crucified.”

If at that moment you were forced to choose a side in the power struggle between Pilate, as representative of Rome and Caesar, and Jesus, a Jewish messianic prophet, you could hardly be faulted for choosing Rome.

Of course, we know the story doesn’t end there. We know Easter follows Good Friday. But I want to focus for the moment, not on the theological repercussions of the resurrection, but the historical events that followed in its wake.

First, zealots picked a fight with Rome and it went catastrophically bad. Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 70 A.D. Historians at the time describe the violence and bloodshed as unprecedented. As with the crucifixion, the gods of Rome would seem to have the upper hand against the God of Israel.

But fast forward 300 years: the Roman Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity, and 80 years after that, the Christian faith becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Rome, the enemy of God’s people, executioner of Jesus, destroyer of the temple, the power that martyred the apostles, the empire of Nero who burned Christians to light his garden parties, the figure of the beast in the Book of Revelation. This Rome, this empire, proclaimed the Nicene Creed:

“We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God…”

Why bring up this seemingly obscure history? Because I think it highlights a potential weakness in our approach to scripture and our identity as the people of God.  And because the world this process birthed, Western Christendom, is coming to an end and we need to wrestle with what that means.

Continue reading →

If There Are Any Heavens: A Memoir by Nicholas Montemarano

I wanted to post a quick review of If There Are Any Heavens: A Memoir by Nicholas Montemarano since it was published today.

What can you say about a book like this? The publisher’s description really captures it.

If There Are Any HeavensOn January 6, 2021, at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in America, while the U.S. Capitol is under attack, Nicholas Montemarano drives six hundred miles to see his mother, who is hospitalized with COVID pneumonia and in a critical state. For ten days he lives in a hotel minutes from the hospital, alternating between hope and helplessness. This is the story of those ten days. It is the story of the pandemic told through the intimate prism of one family’s loss.

Written with visceral urgency in the earliest days of grief, If There Are Any Heavens resists categorization: it is a memoir, a poem, a mournful but loving song. Its form asks readers to slow down and breathe between each broken line. At other moments, a chorus of voices—anti-maskers, COVID-deniers, and doctors—causes the reader to become breathless. It is an almost real-time account of the anxiety, uncertainty, and sorrow brought on by this pandemic. It is also, finally, a devastating homage to a family’s love in a time of great loss.

I grabbed my review copy and started reading it at the end of April and read it straight through. It is spare and yet emotional, immediate and yet ethereal, mundane and yet profound. Its power comes from capturing the powerful emotions and yet surrealism of the pandemic, the question “Is this really happening?” echoes throughout. It contrasts the helpless feeling of losing a loved one with the anger and denial of others but not in a heavy handed way.

This is an important work for those who did not lose a loved one or experience that aspect of the pandemic to read, to get a glimpse into that world and hopefully gain understanding and empathy.

Truly a literary wrestling with historic and yet deeply personal events.

Kirkus: “A poignant elegy for a beloved mother.”

Library Journal: “Montemarano’s unique literary memoir offers an absorbing, visceral experience of the pandemic and should easily find a dedicated audience.”

Shelf Awareness: “Though his story is specific–a description of only one death among more than a million–his eloquence transports it to the realm of the universal.”

The Finalists by David Bell

I have been reading some intellectually challenging non-fiction of late and so needed fiction that wasn’t to demanding but yet entertaining.  Enter David Bell’s new novel, The Finalist, thanks to my friends over at NetGalley. Since I received a review copy, I felt like I should post a review (despite not having posted for some time).

On a beautiful spring day, six college students with nothing in common besides a desperate inability to pay for school gather to compete for the prestigious Hyde Fellowship.

Milo—The front-runner
Natalia—The brain
James—The rule follower
Sydney—The athlete
Duffy—The cowboy
Emily—The social justice warrior

The six of them must surrender their devices when they enter Hyde House, an aging Victorian structure that sits in a secluded part of campus.

Once inside, the doors lock behind them. The students are not allowed to leave until they spend eight hours with a college administrator who will do almost anything to keep the school afloat, and Nicholas Hyde, the privileged and notoriously irresponsible heir to the Hyde family fortune. If the students leave before time is up, they’ll be immediately disqualified.

But when one of the six finalists drops dead, the other students fear they’re being picked off one by one. With a violent protest raging outside, and no way to escape, the survivors viciously turn on each other.

While this felt a little over the top at times (more in terms of the character’s personality and interaction than plot), it kept me interested and wanting to find out what happened (which is the point of a book like this, no?).

Plus, to be fair, much of our world, particularly the world of higher education, seems over the top. And who is to say if you got a group of desperate, highly competitive college students locked in a house with a chance to win a lot of money, it wouldn’t get ugly.

But while the conflict and rhetorical combat creates the tension, it felt annoying to me. But again, what I read about college students these days annoys me too…

In summary:

  • Plot device/concept is the strong point
  • Not really liking any of the characters detracts
  • If you can suspend your disbelief once the first person dies, it is an interesting exploration of the politics and pressures of higher education world these days and the personalities who live in that world
  • Your reaction to the characters will determine your enjoyment of the story to a large degree

An interesting thought experiment and quick read. Beach/vacation read for sure.