The Underneath (Kathi Appelt)

I'm not sure that I have ever read a book whose cover art is more misleading than The Underneath.
 It looks like it might be the sweet little tale of a dog who makes friends with some cats, right?
The Underneath is the story of a little cat who is dropped off in the middle of a Louisiana swamp, punished for the unspeakable crime of becoming "with kitten." This new mother retreats to the first place of safety she can find, which unfortunately is the home of a cruel swamp-dweller (Gar Face) and his abused hound dog, Ranger. Dog meets cat, and they become best friends. They raise the new kittens (Puck and Sabine) together and live in cautious harmony until Gar Face sinks to new levels of cruelty and greed. "The Underneath" is the space underneath the porch, the only space where Ranger and his cats can avoid risk of all the horrible things in life. 
Interspersed throughout the story of Ranger, the mother cat, Puck, and Sabine is another dark, mystic tale involving a magical water moccasin and her own story of anger, loss, and revenge. Grandmother Moccasin and her BFF the Alligator King (who happens to be positively enormous) are on the warpath to make someone pay for all that she has lost...and Ranger and his cats better be sure that they don't cross paths with these ancient, angry, and hungry creatures. 

The Underneath is sad, dark, and full of injustice. It's very suspenseful, and filled with characters you just want to loathe. It's also filled with characters you love and will cheer on throughout their many unfair tribulations. It presents numerous opportunities for deep discussions, and is a great choice for book clubs in older elementary or middle school. The Underneath makes you think about how people's own personal wounds can either lead them to continue wounding others in the same way, or to break the cycle of revenge by forging a new path in life. It makes you appreciate the swampland ecosystem. It forces the reader to examine what, if anything, makes a person truly un-redeemable. 

And it also makes you love your own pets just a little bit more! And at the risk of turning this into a PSA: spay and neuter your pets, people! ;) 



Eat Pray Love (Elizabeth Gilbert)

It's been sitting on the front shelves at my favorite bookstores for a long time. It's been a top seller for a while (over 155 weeks) now. Julia Roberts is about to star in the movie version. My reading  Eat Pray Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia has been long overdue.

This book is an autobiography of Elizabeth's crisis of...herself, really. She seems to be buzzing along enjoying some of the best things in life until, for reasons she respectfully refrains mentioning, she wants out of her marriage. She meets a new man, who is both very good and very bad for her all at the same time. After being destroyed through the divorce settlement, Elizabeth decides that a trek around the globe will let her find all that she needs in order to find balance and peace in her life.
She has begun to seek God with everything that she has, and struggles with the balance between devotion and experiencing life's pleasures. For this reason, she goes to Italy for 4 months and devotes herself only to the pleasure of good culture, company, and food. In Italy she meets many interesting people, eats food that sounds so delicious I think I gained some weight just by reading about it, and she also learns some very interesting things about herself and all that she really wants (and doesn't want) in life.

After leaving Italy, she spends 4 months in India. There she spends her time in an ashram (meditation temple), where she meets more interesting people, and learns all about the disciplines of meditation. At the beginning of the trip, she breaks down after 14 minutes of intense meditation. At the end, she can sit for hours meditating on her view of God and how she perceives His love for her.

Speaking of her view of God.... She believes that Jesus was "a great teacher of peace" (pg. 14), but does not believe that He is the only path to God. I do believe that. I believe Jesus is the son of God, that He lived a perfect life and died in my place (and that of every other sinner) so that I would have eternal life of peace and love in His presence.

Though I disagree with Elizabeth on this point, I have been deeply touched and inspired by some of her observations regarding religion. First off, she actively devotes herself to seeking God, and on meditating on God's love for her. When is the last time I did that? I like how she defines praying as speaking to God, and meditating as listening to Him. When was the last time I pursued and set aside time just to listen to Him?

She leaves Italy, and goes on to Indonesia for 4 months to round out her year of traveling. In Indonesia she meets more very interesting people, of course, one of whom she decides she is ready to fall in love with.

For one thing, on pg. 206 she writes "Be very careful...not to get too obsessed with the repetition of religious rituals just for its own sake." Too many churches, and believers, are obsessed with the repetition of religious rituals. These are wasting valuable time we have so little of on this earth.  

People long to have something to believe in. Even if they are skeptic, the longer they live and the more life they experience, they long to have something to believe in. What do people see in my life that indicates what and who I believe in? Would they ever ask me? 

Elizabeth believes she has to find her own peace in this life. I believe that God freely gives it to those who believe in Him, love Him, and ask for it. On the last page (334) she closes with these words: "In the end...maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it's wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices." Am I living a life of gratitude, both to my fellow humans and to God?

You cannot possibly make it through this book without thinking deeply about so many elements in life, including faith, family, and friends. And whether you disagree with her or not, it's always good to examine your beliefs.

You also cannot make it through this book without wanting to travel. She embeds lots of history about each country, nuances about its culture, and characteristics of its people in each section. Even if I am never able to make it to Italy, India, or Indonesia, I surely hope that I can stop and appreciate whatever foreign countries I do visit with the open heart and perceptive mind that Elizabeth shows her readers.



The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck)

As a reader, I often sail through pieces of literature or nonfiction.   With a goal to read everything (yes, truly), many times I underestimate how deeply a book can affect a person. The Good Earth is one of those rare books that has a deep and lasting hold on my heart. After about a month of reading it, I finally completed it last night, and lay awake thinking of the characters and wondering what happened so some of them and why they experienced one issue or another in the book. This family and this culture is one I will not soon forget.

The Good Earth is set in pre-revolutionary China. The main character is Wang Lung, and we meet him on his wedding day. He is a simple man but capable and very willing of hard work. His own father has ingrained in Wang Lung that nothing is more important than the land. The land that his family owns is one of the few constants in this book. I have thought often of its symbolism and irony.
Thanks to Wang Lung's (and his wife's, whose name is O-Lan) incredible devotion to his land, and to hard work, the land is profitable. They live in peaceful sufficiency, until a great drought comes upon the land. O-Lan works wonders with her creative ability to stretch what little food they have, but eventually it is not enough. Horrible atrocities take place when vast populations of people go hungry. Animals are eaten. Children are sold. Children are eaten. Families are attacked and torn apart. One of the saddest aspects of this culture is shown during the times of famine, which is that there is no respect whatsoever for human life...especially females. It is sad to the point of being absolutely maddening.

Eventually, Wang Lung and his family are once again able to work on their land that is once again fruitful. It is so fruitful, actually, that very quickly he becomes a very rich man. Soon their original earthen shack becomes a palace, and Wang Lung quickly forgets the loyalty, ingenuity, and faithfulness of his hard-working wife. Rather, he begins to criticize her appearance and find reasons to seek satisfaction at tea houses with local harlots. (Just one of the many reasons I can't stand this guy!)

The saga continues with Wang Lung's continued conflicts with his children and with other members of his family. At the conclusion of the book, he is an old man preparing for death but crying out for his sons to refrain from selling the land he has loved so much. It's sad that the land, not his faithful wife nor his talented children, is the only thing he truly loves.

When I read more about Pearl S. Buck (link below), I discovered that she knew so much about Chinese culture during this period of time because she had lived in China for much of her life with her missionary parents. Pearl went on to establish the very first international adoption agency. She has written two other novels about Wang Lung's family, and I definitely plan to consume those soon!