Sorry to overwhelm you with book reviews. There will be one more group after this, and then I'll be caught up.
This is one of those books that, even if I wasn't interested in the subject matter, I might have been tempted to read anyway simply because of all the buzz it's been getting over the last eighteen months. But, as it happens, it's just the kind of book I like so I was happy to follow the crowd.
When the story begins, it is 1944 and Saint-Malo, France is being bombed. One character, a girl, Marie-Laure, is in her uncle's house and trying to find safety. She is blind. Another character, a boy, Werner, is buried underneath the rubble of a hotel. He is a German soldier.
The story then recedes back in time to several years before when Marie-Laure and Werner are mere children (they don't know each other). Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father who is the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. When she goes blind at the age of six, he builds an elaborate replica of their neighborhood so that Marie-Laure will be able to memorize every detail of the city before she tries to navigate it herself.
Werner is an orphan and lives with his sister, Jutta, in a small orphanage under the kind care of Frau Elena. Werner has a brilliant mind, and when he finds an old radio, he is able to fix it and listen to programs from all over the continent. When the German army finds out about his talent, he earns a place in an esteemed training academy and is later assigned to help with research and development.
There's one other important character in the story . . . a rare and precious diamond that has its home in the Museum of Natural History. It has a rich history with many legends associated with it, most notably that it contains supernatural powers which will keep its owner safe but bring misfortune to all his friends and family. While the fighting rages, one man, Reinhold von Rumpel, is desperate to find the diamond with the hope that it will save his life.
The story moves between time and characters, with the past inching ever closer to the present until the two collide (which also happens to be the moment when Marie-Laure's and Werner's paths finally cross as well).
The whole story is beautifully and artfully told. At one point, Jutta asks her brother, "Is it right to do something just because everyone else is doing it?" It's a question that I think all of us have to consider at some point in our lives, and it was quite touching to see Werner work through his own answer to it. He's never a bad kid. In fact, if Germany hadn't gone to war, he would have happily spent the rest of his life tinkering and experimenting and inventing. But at first, he's much more interested in self-preservation than in taking a stand. If he can just get through the war without rocking the boat or drawing attention to himself, he will be happy. But the more he sees, the more he realizes he can't do that. He answers Jutta's question through his heroic actions.
I will say that the ending left me a bit disappointed--probably because I prefer happier endings. But overall, this was a well-told story I'm glad to have read.
In the last twenty years, I have heard the parable of the bicycle at least a dozen times. It is one of those stories that is used in lessons and talks quite frequently because it explains the concept of grace in such an accessible way.
But I'd never read the actual source of the parable (this book), which is a little surprising since I went to BYU and I know this was assigned reading in many religion classes (but none that I took).
The parable of the bicycle is simply this: When Stephen Robinson's daughter was young, she really wanted a bike. He told her that if she saved all of her money, she would be able to buy one. For weeks, she worked and did extra jobs and collected every penny she could. When she went to her dad to ask if she had enough for a bike, he looked at the pitiful amount that she had saved (something like $1.50) and realized that at that rate, she would be grown before she got her bicycle. He said, "I'll tell you what: you give me everything you have, and I'll make up the difference."
It is the same with Jesus Christ. On our own, we could never be good enough to return to Him. In fact, our efforts look pretty pitiful. But the Savior says, "You give me everything you have, and I'll make up the difference." That's grace.
But this book was much more than just the parable of the bicycle, and actually, I had heard it so much prior to reading this that it didn't have the profound impact on me it once did. But other pieces of insight did.
For example, his explanation of perfection made me think about it in a completely new way. Matthew 5:48 issues the challenge, "Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect," but as anyone who has lived on this earth for longer than two minutes knows, it's impossible to be perfect. However, as Stephen Robinson puts it, we're asked to perform "at the limits of our ability" because that is how we grow the most. He relates it to someone lifting weights at a gym. A trainer will keep pushing and pushing you until you collapse because then he knows you've hit the ceiling of your ability . . . and in a few days, you'll be able to go even further.
But this is probably the quote from the book I've thought about the most since finishing it (this is talking about the Savior suffering for the sins of all mankind): "In the Garden of Gethsemane, the spirit withdrew from Jesus because he had taken the guilt of the whole world upon himself and the spirit of God couldn't be present." I've always assumed that the Spirit withdrew from the Savior during that critical moment so that He would know what it felt like to be utterly and completely alone and consequently be able to succor His people as no one else can. While I think that's part of it, it was also a natural consequence. He quite literally took our sins upon Himself, and as all of us know, the Spirit withdraws from us when we sin, so it withdrew from the Savior also.
This book definitely gave me new eyes for the Savior and His sacrifice and greater love for Him.
One of my reading goals for the year was to read two more books in series that I'd already started. I already read the fourth book in the Penderwicks series earlier this year, but I knew that for the other half of this goal, I really wanted to return to Zebra Drive and Mma Ramotswe.
In this installment, the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is running into some financial difficulties: although they've had a steady run of cases, most of them aren't paying enough to keep them in the black (plus, Mma Ramotswe keeps giving Mma Makutsi promotions and raises, which doesn't really help the agency's financial state).
Mma Ramotswe consults Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and they decide that she should move the agency to the other half of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and rent out her building. With the move comes another promotion for Mma Makutsi--to that of assistant manager of the garage. Although such a position was not Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's idea, it seems like it was fortuitous. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is not himself. He doesn't want to work and cares very little about whether his two apprentices work or not, and Mma Makutsi keeps both businesses afloat.
Meanwhile, Mma Ramotswe gets a case from an important man in the government who wants her to investigate the possible poisoning of his brother. While Mma Ramotswe's away, Mma Makutsi takes another case where she must determine if the beauty contestants are morally upright women or not.
There's a lot going on in this book, and I don't know if it was because of that, but I thought some of side stories weren't as fleshed out as they could have been (particularly about the little boy who's found in the desert and smells like a lion--I expected that one to be more important, and, when it wasn't, it almost seemed like it could have been left out entirely).
The hero of this book was definitely Mma Makutsi. In the course of the book, she single-handedly organizes the garage's finances, whips the two lazy apprentices into shape, and solves an important case for the detective agency. She was by far my favorite part of this book. (There are some hints of some stresses of her own, however, and I wonder if those will factor more prominently into a future book.)
The pacing of these stories is slow and gentle with ample amounts of time for philosophizing. Sometimes I found these little tangents quite deep and tinged with humor (a few of my favorite discussions: whether it is moral to stay friends with someone who treats her maid badly, the danger of making false assumptions and hasty judgements, and the conclusion that sometimes we don't need, or even want, to know the answer to everything). Sometimes though, I felt like they went on too long, and I wanted the action to pick up a little.
However, I am loyally attached to these characters, and I'm very curious to find out how Mr. J.L.B Matekoni is doing in the next book.
Have you read any of these books? I'd love to hear your own thoughts, insights, or impressions in the comments!