Book Review: Life Is Beautiful

Book Review: Life Is Beautiful by Sarah M. Johnson

In 2008, an airplane carrying humanitarian workers to a remote village in Guatemala, where they were to build a school, crashed and burned.  The crew and most of the passengers were killed; one young woman survived relatively unharmed, though she had lost half her family, and her mother was severely injured.  This is her story.

Life Is Beautiful

Sarah’s life had not been an easy one for some time before the crash.  Raised outside a small town in rural Wisconsin, Sarah’s family was socially and emotionally isolated.  Her father was a recovering meth addict, they’d recently lost a close relative to cancer, and what little social life Sarah had revolved around heavy drinking with her friends.

At college, Sarah met Jacob, a young man who introduced her to a stronger belief in God, but was dangerously flawed; in particular he reinforced her drinking habits.  A combination of alcoholism and depression made Sarah’s  college career a bust, and Jacob cheated on her, so she had to come home feeling a failure.  The Guatemala trip was meant to help mend the family’s fences.

As this book is in the “inspirational” sub-genre, you might expect that Sarah turned her life around after hitting rock bottom, and you would be correct.  When she finally accepted the help of a therapist (it isn’t directly stated, but her father’s apparent ability to quit meth cold turkey may have influenced her to try to handle everything solo), Sarah began to be able to process her grief and make progress on recovery from alcoholism.  (Finding sober friends and a welcoming church group also helped.)

From a writing perspective, this book is a good example of how real people are far more complex and messy than they generally are shown in fiction.  Jacob is a prime example, a fervent believer who introduces Sarah to a personal relationship with her “higher power” but prone to bouts of unwanted preaching and self-righteousness when drunk, and who is a toxic boyfriend for her.

One misstep is Sarah’s breakthrough moment with her therapist, when she can finally tell the story of the crash and its aftermath while allowing herself to feel the emotions associated with it.  While it would be a powerful moment if the facts had been concealed up to that point in the book, on paper it’s mostly a recitation of details already covered in the first chapters.  This is a short book, and a reader with a decent memory will find this bit redundant.

Recommended primarily to fans of inspirational literature, and older young adult readers who like non-fiction stories as Sarah’s life is of interest.  Not necessarily recommended to those currently undergoing the grieving process; Sarah mentions several books that helped her, and those would probably be better choices.

If you would like to purchase the book, please consider getting it new, as part of the proceeds go to Habitat for Humanity.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of this book to facilitate writing the review; no other compensation was offered or requested.

Book Review: Rot Riot and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University that Changed America

Book Review: Rot Riot and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University that Changed America by Rex Bowman & Carlos Santos

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Rot Riot and Rebellion

If I told you about a school where the students constantly engaged in partying, drunkenness and extramarital sex;  where the students scorned to study and disrespected the teachers, a campus rife with violence that boiled over into riots that resulted at least once in murder, what school would you think I was talking about?   If you guessed the University of Virginia from 1825 to 1846, you would be correct.

The University of Virginia in Charlottesville was the first secular college in the young United States.  All previous schools of higher learning had been sponsored by one denomination or another, and had mandatory religious services.   Thomas Jefferson had a vision for a school that people of all religions and none could attend.  He also had some innovative ideas about the power structure such an university might have.  This got him a lot of opposition, so it was only in his eighties that the school was finally built.

Sadly, the first few classes of students failed to live up to Mr. Jefferson’s expectations; at one point he broke into tears in public, which brought about a short-lived attempt to do better by the pupils.  They were a rowdy bunch who gambled and drank and abused slaves; and were so jealous of their honor that any real or imagined slight erupted into violence.  One student tried to blow up a professor with an improvised bomb–twice!  And quite a few of them were prominent in the Confederate Army; sadly, none are mentioned as joining the Union.

There are many colorful stories of the early days, including the short college career of Edgar Allan Poe.  Since this is a University of Virginia publication, it comes with proper end notes, bibliography and index.  There are some black and white pictures in the middle, mostly portraits as very few of the important people involved lived to the age of photography.

This is a very enjoyable book that I would recommend to Virginians (especially alumni of the college), fans of Thomas Jefferson, and college students who are tired of being told how much worse their generation is compared to those of bygone days.

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