Seed to Harvest (a.k.a. The Patternist Series)
By Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler is one of a very, very rare breed: a woman of color who writes science fiction. Some years ago I was pleased to discover her Parables series, and I recently read with great interest her novels Wild Seed (1980), Mind of My Mind (1977), Clay’s Ark (1984), and Patternmaster (1976), all of which were re-issued in chronological order in the anthology entitled Seed to Harvest.
Taken together, these novels depict a secret history of earth that begins in ancient northern Africa and continues into the future. The protagonists include a pair of immortal beings who survive either by transferring consciousness from one “host” body to another or shape-shifting as the circumstances require. These beings work together (sometimes willingly, sometimes adversarially) to develop a strain of humanity that is psychically connected via a telepathic network (the “pattern”).
These folk are not alone on earth, however, as they interact with regular humans (a.k.a. “mutes”) as well as a new race of human mutants that developed when a spaceship carried an extraterrestrial virus back to earth.
These well-drawn and imaginative characters are the canvas on which Butler paints scenes that raise questions about what it means to be a human, to have power, to have gender, and to have race. Like all of the best science fiction, she chooses to invent a reality that calls our own assumptions into question and allows us to consider other possibilities.
These stories present us with those who are disenfranchised and marginalized, yet who make courageous stands and seek to re-cast forced subservience into extraordinary accounts of survival. They explore notions of how race and gender affect one’s place in society and invite us to do the same.
I would heartily recommend this series to anyone who likes big questions or good science fiction.
Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul (by Tony Hendra)
How to Cook Your Daughter (by Jessica Hendra)
I am a sucker for memoirs – Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt), Liar’s Club (Mary Karr), Pastor (Eugene Peterson) – and when I saw that Tony Hendra, a writer for the National Lampoon and a contemporary of the folks from Monty Python and the SNL “glory years” had written a spiritual autobiography, well, I wanted it. Father Joe is an account of Hendra’s relationship with a Benedictine monk who became his mentor and spiritual director when Hendra was a teen in the 1950’s and lasted until the monk’s death in 1998. In the memoir, Hendra describes a life of excess and debauchery that is consistently challenged and (according to Hendra, anyway) re-centered by the quiet counsel of the wise monk.
I found this to be compelling reading, not so much because of the narrative that Hendra told about himself, but because of the ways that Father Joe sought to be a helpful, truthful, non-anxious presence. I learned a lot from Father Joe, and would encourage anyone who fancies themselves to be in the business of providing spiritual counsel to pick it up. According to the book, this is the story of “how Tony Hendra learned to love. It’s the story of a whole generation looking for a way back from mockery and irony, looking for its own Father Joe, and a testament to one of the most charismatic mentors in modern literature.” It was billed as a refreshing, “tell-all spiritual memoir” that held nothing back.
When Father Joe was released, Hendra’s daughter Jessica read it, hoping that perhaps her father had come to a place where he could acknowledge the ways that he had abused her as a child. Seeing no mention of the pain that he had caused her, she went public with her accusation of molestation. How To Cook Your Daughter is the title of her own memoir, and that title is taken from a satirical piece her father authored just prior to the beginning of the abuse she endured.
Jessica Hendra tells the story of a young girl who desperately wants her daddy to love her; she describes the horrors she suffered at his hand and her resulting battles with bulimia and anorexia; and it gives the reader a picture of the fact that healing and hope is possible even after experiencing such devastation.
Just as I encourage those who seek to provide spiritual direction to read Father Joe, I might encourage those who have lived with abuse to look within the pages of How To Cook Your Daughter. There are times when the latter makes the reader feel uncomfortable, and I wanted to say, “Are you sure that you want to be talking about this now? You know we can hear you, right?”, but I will suggest this volume to some of my friends who have suffered themselves from sexual abuse.
Gundamentalism and Where it is Taking America
By James E. Atwood
This is one of the most important and most encouraging books I have read in a long time. Atwood, a longtime member of the NRA, an avid sportsman, and a Presbyterian Pastor, speaks eloquently about the ways that gun violence threatens the physical, mental, and spiritual health of our nation.
Particularly refreshing is his choice to seek to reclaim the language in this discussion. He’s not advocating “gun rights” or “gun control”, but rather he’s seeking to invite conversation about some ways in which the vast majority of Americans wish that the country were safer – simple measures like uniform background checks, funding for gun violence research and its impact on public health, and seeking to eliminate gun trafficking in our nation.
“Gundamentalism”, according to Atwood, is a mindset embraced by a minority of gun owners who are, in his words, “inch by inch and law by law promoting the ‘divine right of guns in America’.” He goes on to quote another author who refers to gundamentalism as “The worship of guns: a modern religion based on buying, owning, carrying and shooting of large numbers of firearms in situations where they are not really necessary.” A gundamentalist is someone who 1) goes beyond the language of the Second Amendment to the Constitution by taking the unrestricted right to bear arms as a matter of religious faith; 2) a gun owner who believes that his or her interpretation of the Second Amendment means that she or he can slander or harass those who disagree; and 3) a gun owner who is unwilling to entertain the possibility that scientific studies and court rulings might lead to conclusions that do not fit his or her own narrative. Gundamentalists are driven by fear that is sold part and parcel by the NRA and the legislators that are, essentially, bought and paid for by this lobby (I strongly believe that the NRA was once a group of sportsmen who advocated gun safety and education, but now exists as a political movement that is funded almost entirely by those who stand to profit most from the continuing spiral of firearm sales in the USA).
This book is well-researched, richly footnoted, and theologically sound. I would commend it to anyone who is open to thinking creatively and hopefully about how we might move towards a day when we are no longer willing to accept as ‘unavoidable” the deaths of more than 100 children each month due to gun violence. This book will probably disappoint extremists on either side, but those who are willing to ask questions will find their openness rewarded.
H Is for Hawk
by Helen MacDonald
I can’t tell if this is a book about Helen MacDonald’s deep grief over the death of her father or a narrative about her adoption and training of a goshawk. The two themes are seamlessly intertwined as the fierceness of the raptor echoes the voraciousness of her own grief.
I learned a great deal about falconry, history, geography, and culture… and I felt the deep passion for life and connection that came through both the bird and her love for her father (and the rest of the family).
I would eagerly recommend this volume to anyone who loves a good story, appreciates birds, and knows the pain of loss.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
by JD Vance
I have heard and read a great deal about the thought that it was poor, white, Americans who propelled Donald Trump on his surprising ascendancy to the Presidency. I found Hillbilly Elegy to be a fascinating and compelling exploration of Appalachian culture.
The book is a memoir of a young man who is raised, in large part, by his maternal grandparents (with a good bit of input from his mother and a succession of father figures that she brings home). One might call it a “no-holds-barred”, realistic look at the things that “everybody knows” in communities like Middletown, Ohio or Jackson, Kentucky. Vance invites the reader into his chaotic, but fiercely loyal and often surprisingly tender family.
In addition to the compelling narrative and vivid character development, there is important consideration given to a much larger question: where has “the American Dream” gone for vast segments of our nation’s population?
In a fashion that is not dissimilar to “Angela’s Ashes” (Frank McCourt), Vance manages to walk the line between tragedy and comedy while telling the truth about an important demographic in our nation.
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
by Tom Reiss
I read Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” during a summer in college. I was painting houses at the time, and I vividly remember reading several chapters each night and then walking my painting partner through the action on the following day. It is an all-time favorite.
Tom Reiss explores the story of Dumas’ father, General Alex Dumas, a man who was born the son of a black slave in what is now Haiti and went on to lead some of Napoleon’s most formidable armies… only to be betrayed and imprisoned… There is much to commend this well-researched biography, not the least of which is Reiss’ attempt to tell the story of a man who broke the race barrier in incredible ways a century prior to Lincoln’s emancipation of the American slaves. Dumas’ story is full of intrigue and inspiration and succeeds in reaching Reiss’ goal of shedding more light on the novels of Dumas the son.
That said, my sense was that the work would not have suffered one bit by being fifty pages shorter. Reiss has such an eye for detail that the reader may find him or herself thinking, “and WHY do I need to know this little tidbit?”
Still, if you are a fan of “The Three Musketeers” or other swashbucklers, you may appreciate this inspirational glimpse.
A People’s History of Sports in the United States
by Dave Zirin
Colin Kaepernick is a player for the San Francisco 49ers football club who raised no small amount of hubbub this year when he announced his intention to refuse to stand for the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. Critics decried this mixture of politics and sport as an unholy thing, and he was much maligned in some circles (and lauded and imitated in others).
This work by Dave Zirin explores the complex relationship between sport and politics. After an introductory reflection on the situation prior to 1900 (including a rather dated “exposé” on the moral turpitude of those who are willing to indulge in the carnality of the croquet court), he offers a fascinating narrative describing radical athletes, sportswriters, and fans. He is unapologetically liberal and contrarian in his approach, and he tells the stories of such well-known athletes as Cassius Clay/Mohammed Ali, Curt Flood, and Brandi Chasten. In addition, he tells the stories of countless other athletes who used the platform of sport to convey a message about political or cultural change. Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, and dozens of Olympians (or would-be Olympians) all contribute to this fascinating and wide-reaching discussion.
I would commend this book to this who are interested in reading more about race, culture, and the role of sport in shaping societal attitudes.
The Class of ’65: A Student, A Divided Town, and the Long Road to Forgiveness
By Jim Auchmutey
This is the true story of Greg Wittkamper and his journey through the Civil Rights movement, racism in America’s deep south, and the price that he paid for his participation in the movement. More than that, though, it is the narrative of a community’s encounter with some of the ugliest aspects of itself and the healing and reconciliation that is in process in our culture.
Wittkamper was a resident of Koinonia, an intentionally interracial Christian community near Americus, GA. Under the leadership of Clarence Jordan, the members of Koinonia sought to live the values of justice and equality in what was an incredibly hostile environment. Wittkamper was a white student in Americus High School when it was integrated, and he chose to stand with the brave African-Americans who were the first to integrate that institution. He was beaten, spat upon, and marginalized in many ways.
In 2006, however, Wittkamper began receiving letters from his classmates asking him to come to a reunion so that they could express their sorrow at what had passed so many years ago, and the unknown impact his life had on them in the years following graduation.
This is the story of a community trying to come to grips with the great evil within itself and seek healing. It’s told in compelling terms, and well-worth your time in reading it.
Grieving a Suicide
By Albert Y. Hsu
Three times in the past two months I’ve been called to respond pastorally to an individual’s attempt to end his or her own life. Twice, those people chose to act with finality, and once we were able to secure assistance and preserve life. That means that twice in the last two months I’ve stood in front of a room full of people who wanted to know exactly what happened, theologically speaking, when a person chose to end his life. I faced grief-stricken mothers and sisters and brothers who pleaded with me, “Dave, please tell me that he’s not in hell right now…”
Albert Hsu’s father took his own life, and this slim volume is a response to that act. Mr. Hsu invites us into his own grief and explores some of the ways that suicide impacts those who are left behind. He explores the causes of suicidal thoughts and behavior, he points to hope in the midst of suffering, and he invites us into a community of grief as we lament the loss of loved ones.
My favorite line in the book is in reference to a man who shot himself. As the funeral, the speaker said, “Our friend died on his own battlefield. He was killed in action fighting a civil war.”
I would enthusiastically endorse this book for anyone who has suffered through the suicide of a loved one; I would similarly suggest that friends of the bereaved would do well to read through it just to get a glimpse of what it looked like from Mr. Hsu’s perspective.
The Boys In The Boat
By Daniel James Brown
I have never, ever, been interested in rowing – whether in pursuit of a fish meal or as a participant or fan of crew. Yet this volume came so highly recommended that I picked it up, and I was smitten – because while it is fundamentally a tale about the hardscrabble team from the University of Washington that took the gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics – it is a great story well-told.
Daniel James Brown explores the relationships between the men on the boats and their coaches; he provides an astoundingly haunting and evocative narration of Seattle and its environs during the Great Depression, and he lends his eye for detail to the charade that Adolf Hitler and his minions staged in 1936. History, sports, inspiration, science, and even a love story make this well worth your time. I’d highly recommend it.
A friend of mine heard Mr. Brown speak recently, and reports that the author was asked, “How did you make this so compelling? It’s history. We knew on page 1 that this team won the gold medal.” Mr. Brown said, “I constantly had to remind myself that the boys in the boat didn’t know that they would win the gold medal.” He tells the story with that kind of enthusiasm and respect. A great read.
By Archibald MacLeish
I decided to page through this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama as I have been preaching through the book of Job. I had hoped to be arrested, and brought into a new or deeper understanding of the struggle in which Job is engaged. I was disappointed (although, to be fair, I am willing to accept most of the responsibility for that!).
J.B. is a very wealthy banker who, like Job, suffers the loss of everything that has meaning to him. The play is written to take place in a circus ring, which says something about MacLeish’s view of the universe, I suppose.
The real twist comes in the ending, wherein rather than Job abasing himself before the unspeakable power of God Almighty, J.B. essentially forgives God for the things that God has done. There is reconciliation, but it comes not through Job’s repentance but rather through Job’s willingness to overlook the Divine inconsistency.
I wasn’t shocked by this, and indeed found it to be mildly interesting as period reading – but I would be hard-pressed to recommend it to many folks.
Parable of the Sower
Parable of the Talents
By Octavia E. Butler
I love reading novels that take issues of faith, belief, and spirituality seriously. When those novels tell stories that are imaginative and engaging, it’s even better. And when those stories come from communities that are often muted, well, so much the better.
I was delighted when my friend Randy suggested these two volumes written by one of the premier female African-American writers of science fiction. Together, these books tell the story of Lauren Olamina, a young woman whom we meet in 2025 Los Angeles – a city that has been destroyed by drugs, war, and economic collapse. In this skillful narrative, we hear how Lauren’s father (a Baptist preacher) and a few others try to preserve the culture that remains. Before long, however, the city is destroyed and Lauren and an unlikely group of displaced people begin to make their way north to a place where they might find drinking water, a place to grow their food, and safety for their children. Along the way, Lauren develops a philosophical/religious system that may change history.
Novels about a dystopian future are not uncommon these days, but these works are rich and deep well worth the read.
Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church
By Rachel Held Evans
Rachel Held Evans burst into my consciousness with her powerful poem “Natori” (http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/natori) that calls out “pastors who explain things”. I was impressed with the first of her memoirs, “Evolving in Monkey Town” (subsequently retitled “Faith Unraveled”), and this work is no disappointment. She speaks the truth that many of my young adult friends have voiced: that too often the church has gotten lost in its buildings, its scandals, its self-righteousness…and in so doing, has rendered the person and work of Christ less accessible to some.
Evans uses the seven sacraments of the Catholic church as her guide and explores the ways in which the church could and should be a demonstrably different sort of community that points toward hope. She is a good and clever writer; she is honest and funny and poignant.
It’s a quick read, and it’s heightened by listening to her sister’s album entitled “Seven Songs” – a companion to Evans’ work. You can check that out here: http://www.amandaopelt.com
I’d recommend this to anyone in church leadership, or to anyone who is interested in hearing the stories of millennials who are looking for ways to express their faith.
African Friends and Money Matters
By David Maranz
Think for a few moments about what “everybody knows”. “Everybody knows” you wear green on St. Patrick’s day, right? “Everybody knows” that an elephant carving with a raised trunk indicates good luck. “Everybody knows” that a penny saved is a penny earned…
The problem, of course, is that what “everybody knows” varies from place to place and people to people around the globe. David Maranz has lived and work in Africa for nearly four decades. In this helpful text, he tries to point toward some ways in which the cultural mindset around managing money and other resources shapes behavior in Africa. His style is intentionally didactic – he simply makes a series of ninety observations gleaned from his years of ethnological work and then offers anecdotes to illustrate the concepts. The stories he tells are simple and very reflective of situations that I have encountered in my twenty years of friendship with many Africans. I have found that this book has helped me to make sense of some behaviors that seemed curious to me at first blush.
I would heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in growing in partnership. For my American and other western friends, it will provide a helpful window into cultural patterns that might seem mystifying or confusing. For my African friends, it could be a helpful and respectful mirror that allows them to see why folks like me are often at a loss as to how to respond to various situations.
African Friends and Money Matters is published by SIL (formerly Summer Institute for Linguistics), a faith-based non-profit that seeks to serve language communities worldwide by providing resources such as translation and research into linguistic development.
Peace at the Last
by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
The first thing I need to say is that this is a good book. You should buy it and read it (after you buy and read The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Sorrows).
That said, when I finished this book, I was reminded of a scene from my childhood. Most days, my friend Steve and I would race home from 7th grade and watch The Three Stooges. The classic slapstick was a great antidote to a humdrum school day. Most times, we loved the Stooges – because Larry, Moe, and Curly were just great. But every now and then, we’d have to watch Larry, Moe, and Shemp – or, worse, Larry, Moe, and Curly Joe. We still watched them, because they were the Stooges, and we were together. But it wasn’t the same.
After a nearly two-decade hiatus, Walter Wangerin has reunited us with Pertelote, John Wesley Weasel, and the rest of the Animals introduced in the previous volumes. Critical reviews called Dun Cow “the most literate and intelligent story of the year”, and the Book of Sorrows “a beautifully stylized fable of the immemorial war between good and evil.” “Peace at the Last” is beautiful because it reunites us with characters we love – but I’m not sure you’ll love them as much as I do if you meet them here.
Wangerin is a masterful story teller, and this is a good story that points to hope, redemption, and the meaning of sacrifice. The only problem is, the first two volumes were great stories that pointed to these same things. Enjoy this – but enjoy it third.
The Good Lord Bird
By James McBride
What a rollicking, expansive story! We start in the burnt-out shell of a church building in Wilmington, DE, and climb into the narrative by means of a firebox containing some Confederate dollars, a feather from an Ivory-billed woodpecker, and several notebooks containing the narrative of one Henry “the Onion” Shackleford.
In McBride’s novel, Shackleford remembers his childhood in the rough-and-tumble Kansas Territory. In 1856, the young slave boy finds himself in the middle of an altercation between noted abolitionist John Brown and pro-slavery forces. Henry’s father is killed, and Henry is “rescued” and nicknamed “Onion” by the legendary (and explosive) Brown, who believes that Shackleford is a girl.
This is a wild tale that takes us through the Kansas Territory, through Frederick Douglass’ home in Rochester, NY, to anti-slavery rallies in Boston and Philadelphia, and finally to John Brown’s ill-fated raid on the Federal Armory in Harper’s Ferry, (West) Virginia.
I truly enjoyed this book, which made me laugh and cry and think. McBride does a great job of entering into the experience of this young hero/victim. Through Onion’s eyes, we also have the opportunity to reflect upon and consider one of the more colorful (and sometimes neglected) characters in American history.
Out of the Woods: A Bird Watcher’s Year
By Ora E. Anderson
This is a delightful collection of essays and poems that demonstrate clearly the old maxim that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. The writing here is not outstanding in its technique or scope. The narrative is not compelling or gripping. Nothing in this book screams “YOU HAVE TO READ ME! DON’T PUT ME DOWN!”
Which is, I believe, a part of its appeal. With each little meditation, I felt as though I was sitting down for a cup of coffee with a 92 year old friend who would tell me what the morning had been like out at his place. Like a lot of us, when Ora talks about the day, he repeats himself. Like a lot of us, he adds details later, and throws in asides.
We are invited into his den to watch the collection of juncoes, geese, turkey, blue jays, and more as they parade across the lawn on the other side of the sliding glass door. In this conversations, he takes us down mountain paths in remote hollers that are alive in his memory – and come freshly to the reader.
This book might change your life. Not because it’s so profound or deep, but because you’ll want to pull on some hiking boots, buy a bird feeder, and pay attention. You could do much, much worse. I’d recommend this as a gift to anyone who loves birds, nature, and reading. Thanks, Ariel, for sharing it with your dad!
Why We Can’t Wait
By The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I am profoundly embarrassed to admit that this is the first complete book I’ve read by this American icon. I have listened to sermons, read excerpts, studied speeches…but never read a complete work.
There, now that’s out of the way, I can go ahead and mention that this is an eyewitness account of the civil rights movement in 1963, primarily focused on the campaign in and around Birmingham, Alabama. It contains the famed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
I was struck by several insights from this work. Key among these was my tremendous appreciation for the skill and organization required by the movement. It was instructive to read King’s account of recruiting and training protesters. The covenant of non-violence that the protesters were expected to sign, and to which they were held accountable is a remarkable piece of discipleship and strategy.
At one point, King mentioned that the protesters were so strapped for resources that had the young people actually been served at the lunch counters, they’d not have been able to afford to pay for their lunches!
The truth is that nobody needs Dave Carver to suggest that this Martin Luther King, Jr. fella is a good writer who’s going places. But if I can do anything to encourage you to pick this up, allow me to do so!
The White Tiger: A Novel
By Aravind Adiga
In this page-turner, we follow the comic (and dark) adventures of Balram Halwai, a poor driver/servant who emerges from the poverty of a small village into the poverty of Bangalore and other Indian cities and finally as a wealthy and powerful entrepreneur.
The novel takes the form of a series of letters from a Halwai, now a wealthy businessman, to the president of China (who is planning to visit Bangalore). Through these letters, we get a glimpse into a wickedly corrupt, amoral, and dark world that is reflective of the ways that caste still informs modern Indian society. It is touching and funny, dark and dreadful, and most importantly, engaging. Adiga is a powerful writer and adds a valuable voice to my library.
While not the same as “The Kite Runner” or “What is the What?”, if you’re looking to explore some fiction from the developing world, this is a great example of that genre.
Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible
By Debbie Blue
Lauren Winner, one of the most engaging authors my spirit has seen in the last decade, said simply, “Debbie Blue’s book is the best I read all year.” When I saw that, I knew that it was worth a fifteen-dollar gamble. It paid off!
I was a little afraid that this would be a collection of National Geographic style essays describing the behavior and habits of a variety of birds that found themselves mentioned in the bible. I was delighted to discover that although there were such moments, they are clearly not the thrust of this work. Instead, Blue invites us to live into the words of Jesus, who said, “Consider the birds…” And so, she considers.
Readers discover how the life of the pigeon, the cock, and the pelican (to name a few) can illustrate some essential truths about the Divine. In so doing, we discover how our feathered friends teach us something of ourselves as well.
It’s been a long time since I read a book and thought, “This has to be a series of sermons…” But I can’t wait to walk more deeply into the insights and models that Blue has set before us here. I’d strongly recommend this book!
America and its Guns: A Theological Exposé
By James E. Atwood
30,000 Americans die each year as a result of firearms. Why?
Atwood, a pastor, gun owner and avid hunter, suggests that these deaths are the result of a culture that places its trust in violence. He asks why we worship: the answer – because a god offers us security and safety. We choose our gods based on the promises that they offer. The author seeks to demonstrate how our culture has been deceived into a belief that the tools of violence (a military drone or a handgun in the nightstand) will offer us and those we love absolute security and a life free from fear. As such then, the “theological exposé” described in the title is an attempt to diagnose our fascination with guns, weaponry, “safety”, freedom, security, and individuality as a problem of idolatry.
To my mind, he succeeds. This is an insightful volume that is an invitation to the faith community (primarily the church) to step up and seek to engage our society in a meaningful discussion about reducing the overwhelming number of illegal gun purchases that is the direct cause of so many of these deaths.
The statistics presented in the book are alarming, the reasoning is sound, the argument compelling, and the conclusion valid: the church needs to address this as a spiritual issue. I would commend this book for your reading.
The Saddest Girl in the World
By Cathy Glass
Cathy Glass (a pseudonym) is a foster parent in England. In this volume, she tells the story of Donna, a ten-year-old child who arrives at Cathy’s home with just a few hours’ notice. Donna had been removed from her mother’s care and placed with a family who was also caring for Donna’s younger brothers. However, the trauma that Donna and her brothers had endured was so severe that they were unable to live together. This book, one of many by the same author, is a testament to the healing power of love in the midst of the brokenness of our world. Cathy’s behavior, and that of her biological children, is a model of patience and creativity.
I bought this book because some good friends of mine are foster parents, and I thought that this might be a helpful glimpse into their world. The writing is neither lofty nor elegant (it didn’t help that I read this after reading Barbara Kingsolver!), but the story is compelling and straightforward. I recognized many of the children I’ve known and loved over the years in the echoes of Donna’s voice. Although I’m sure that the foster care system in the UK is different than that in the USA, it does not seem terribly far removed from ours.
I would recommend this book to anyone who loves children, or who loves those who care for them.
The Wheel of Fortune
By Susan Howatch
Make me answer the question, “Who is your favorite novelist” and on some days, at any rate, you’ll hear me answer “Susan Howatch”. Her Starbridge series is breathtaking in its exploration of the relationships between spirituality, healing, power, sexuality, authority, sin, and grace. “Wheel of Fortune” is one of her earlier works, and it concerns the fortunes of the Godwin family in Wales. It is a vast epic, and considers the ways in which the members of this family relate to each other, the British class system of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the wealth and power that the family covets so badly. After I had begun reading the novel, I discovered that this saga is actually a retelling of the history of the Plantagenet family of Edward III of England
and his descendants. In Howatch’s rendition, the manor home of the Godwins stands for the Edwardian throne.
It’s a rich and full story that is, to put it mildly, encompassing. I was particularly pleased with the way in which she switched voices of narration in the various sections of the novel.
This is not a book that will make you a better person, or help you lose weight or learn how to fix the leak in your bathroom sink. You won’t make friends easier because of having read it. But it’ll suck you in and invite you to consider what in your life is sacred; what do you value; and how do you want to pass it along to the next generation. You could do a lot worse. A thousand pages will guarantee you some sleepless nights. Or some TV free nights. Again, you could do worse. And what the heck, you can buy it used for a penny.
I’m just sayin’.
by Barbara Kingsolver
Dellarobia Turnbow is a red hot mess. She’s about to flush her marriage away with a secret meeting when she is stopped in her tracks by a burning bush – or, more accurately, a forest of burning trees. She encounters an immense swarm of Monarch Butterflies who, against all precedent and without anyone’s knowledge, have chosen her family’s Appalachian hilltop on which to overwinter.
The novel is incredibly intimate, as we journey inside Dellarobia’s head and heart, her secret yearnings and daily frustrations. It is amazingly vast, we we consider the ways that life and the planet are interrelated and how the things that we do affect the environment in which we live. It’s really funny, such as when an environmentalist suggests to this poor woman whose never been more than fifty miles from home that in her quest to save the earth she has to “fly less”. This is a story that is rich and deep and thought provoking.
I’m going to read it again, however, because Kingsolver is such an artist with her prose. The church choir sings a hymn, “dragging it like a plow through heavy clay”; the pastor uses “his hands to push and pull his congregants as if kneading dough and making grace rise.” Dellarobia walks under “this mess of dirty white sky like a lousy drywall job.” Her husband’s gentleness is “merely the stuff he was made of, like the fiber content of a garment.” I’m sure I missed a bunch of these verbal gems.
There are twists and turns and big questions and fine detail – in other words, it’s a great novel. Do yourself a favor and read it.
by Aelred of Rievaulx
What a joy it was to find a vocabulary for friendship that expresses my own thoughts and longings…and to discover that it was written almost a thousand years ago! Aelred was a monk, a humanist, and a scholar who gave the world a vision of natural and supernatural friendship.
“…in our day, that is, in this age of Christianity, friends are so few…”
“Shall I say of friendship what John, the friend of Jesus, says of charity: ‘God is friendship’?…That would be unusual, to be sure, nor does it have the sanction of the Scriptures. But still what is true of charity, I surely do not hesitate to grant to friendship, since ‘he that abides in friendship, abides in God, and God in him.'”
“But what happiness, what security, what joy to have someone to whom you dare to speak on terms of equality as to another self; one to whom you need have no fear to confess your failings; one to whom you can unblushingly make known what progress you have made in the spiritual life; one to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart and before whom you can place all your plans!”
This is not an easy read, but Aelred makes some profound points. In an age where people have a thousand “Facebook friends” and sit home alone all day, it’s well worth considering a theology of friendship.
Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography
By Amy Frykholm
In preparation for my sermon on Julian (posted as “This World is [Hazel] Nuts!”), I purchased an electronic version of this book. How odd – to be reading on my tablet a biography of the first woman to publish a book in the English Language.
Frykholm does a wonderful job at putting the reader in 14th century England. You can smell the Black Death and hear the fear as it’s preached from the pulpits…the rootedness of Julian’s cell in the midst of the bustling village comes through loud and clear. I found it to be a thoroughly engaging read that put Julian’s thought and teaching in wonderful context. Frykholm is particularly adept at conveying Julian’s concern for her “even Christians” and the intimate relationship between Julian and her own Spiritual Advisor.
If you are one who enjoys history, theology, or the story of a brave and courageous woman who took on the powers that be, you’ll enjoy this book.
Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error
By Kathryn Schultz
I purchased this book after seeing a youtube clip of a speech by former President Bill Clinton (who knows a thing or two about being wrong) wherein he spoke highly of this work.
Schultz explores the delight that we take in being right and the frustration we experience when proven wrong – and in doing so, she takes us on a fascinating journey into the human psyche and our own experience. She quotes extensively from the latest research, but she also informs her narrative with thoughts from Shakespeare, Augustine, Descartes, and Groucho Marx. Even better are the many anecdotes and illustrations from the author’s experience as well as people she interviewed for this work. As the book’s jacket indicates, “she proposes a new way of looking at wrongness. In this view, error is both a given and a gift – one that can transform our world views, our relationships, and, most profoundly, ourselves.”
This is a very interesting testament to human creativity and resilience and could help me, and a number of my friends and colleagues, to experience a deeper and better level of conversation and dialogue around issues on which we disagree.
Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World
By Joel Salatin
Salatin is the owner and resident curmudgeon at Polyface Farms in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. He’s the third generation in his family to work that land, and there are at least two generations behind him. In this collection of essays, I can guarantee that just about everyone will find something to like. Of course, that also means that there’s plenty to stretch you, or even just irritate you.
The self-proclaimed “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic” farmer does much to get readers thinking about ways in which we can and should be better stewards of the earth. He talks about respect for the dirt, for the crops, the animals, and each other. Along the way, he rails against inheritance taxes, farm subsidies, lawyers, television, and more.
The thing that I appreciate about Salatin’s writing is his sense of awe and wonder for the created order. “Nature can only be tricked for so long, however, and many of today’s problems like plant diseases, erosion, compaction and water repulsion indicate that nature will eventually force a day of reckoning to balance the needs of the soil.” I would recommend this book for anyone.
The Handmaid’s Tale
By Margaret Atwood
What’s not to like about a book that belongs to the Science Fiction genre, gets its title from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, features Christian Fundamentalists taking over the US Government after an Islamic Terrorist attack, and asks important questions about human rights and gender roles?
Canadian author Margaret Atwood sets her story in a post-apocalyptic US known as Gilead where the Constitution has been suspended under the guise of “National Security” and a class of women is kept as “handmaids” for reproductive purposes. Told from the perspective of one of these women (Offred), this is a horrific story of the ways that human relationships can be broken and warped in so many ways. Atwood draws her characters magnificently and uses them (and the situations in which they are found) to ask discuss issues like women’s rights, freedom of religion, and reproductive choices (babies are determined to be “shredders” or “keepers”, for instance).
If you like stories that make you think, and ask you hard questions, this is for you. If you want to escape into stories that make you feel warm and fuzzy, then you’d better skip it.
The Gingerbread House: Volume 1
By Carin Gerhardsen
This is a new series of police novels published by the same folks who handled Stieg Larsson’s “Dragon Tattoo” series of novels. In fact, I believe it is the same editorial team. Like Larsson’s work, this novel is Swedish through and through – it took me a while to get used to reading the names of the people, places, etc., that rung so unfamiliar in my ears.
The story, however, is well-told and fast-paced. There are a series of brutish murders committed – and each of the victims is 44 years old. The police detective, Conny Sjöberg, and his colleagues at the Hammarby PD begin to suspect that there is a link – and then discover the truth about a deep and dark past.
The plot twist near the end is simply exquisite – wonderful in conception and masterful in its execution. This is a very well-written, well-edited book that deserves to be called “a page turner” (even if I read it on my Kindle!).
There are other threads that will undoubtedly pick up in subsequent volumes of the series. I would heartily recommend this book for those interested in a little escapist fiction!
Behold That Star: A Christmas Anthology
Edited by the Bruderhof
My friends know that I love a good story. A good Christmas story is even better. Each year I try to write an original piece to tell to my congregation on Christmas Eve. So I was delighted to find this collection of delightful stories that have nothing to do with Rudolph or Santa. Many of them are classic tales with a European twist to them; some have fantastic creatures and woebegone orphans; all have some hope and light of Christ.
These are wonderful for reading out loud or to yourself. There are some songs and poems in here as well. I found that reading one of these each night helped me become a better Christian – and better prepared for the Christmas season. This is a profoundly wise and hopeful vision that is birthed in the tradition of Christmas and anchored in the heart of community.
If you visit the Plough website, you can download a free audio file that is iTunes-compatible! And when I sent a “thank you note” to the folks at Plough, they told me that there was a new, expanded volume of Christmas stories available entitled Home for Christmas: Stories for Young and Old. They sent me a copy, and it looks fantastic.
The Wonder Boys
By Michael Chabon
OK, I admit. I’m a sucker for Pittsburgh. I have watched terrible movies because they were filmed here, and I could say, “Hey! I’ve been there!” Good thing I don’t live in NY or LA, or I’d never get anything done!
So I got the book on my kindle for two bucks, and I have to say, my favorite character in the novel is Pittsburgh. Chabon is masterful at describing the city and environs as an integral part of the story. It is authentic, and I don’t know that the story could be told elsewhere.
That said, my reaction to the story itself was, “meh”. The main character, Grady Tripp, is an English Professor at an unnamed Pittsburgh university, who is in a web of crazy and self-destructive behaviors. The plot involves a weekend in Tripp’s crazy and disjointed life – a point that matches his frustration with his unfinished novel and his fragmented life.
Perhaps I am a little too close to people who lead lives that are disjointed and confused and corrupted by self-destruction, but it wasn’t a pleasure read for me. To be honest, I read it to see how Pittsburgh turned out. Smarter people than me have given this amazing reviews. I can’t do that, but you can find the reviews on the Amazon site and judge for yourself.
Miracle Boy Grows Up: How the Disability Rights Revolution Saved My Sanity
By Ben Mattlin
Ben Mattlin was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a congenital disease that was expected to take his life within a few years. However, he defied the odds and has lived a productive and happy life. I bought this book because I know a little guy who is living with SMA and I thought it would give me some inspiration and wisdom as to how to care for him.
I was very impressed with the unsentimental approach that Mattlin takes to his life and the extent to which he sees himself as simply “different”, or even normal. The point of Mattlin’s memoir (hence the subtitle) is that his entry to adulthood coincided with the disability rights movement, and so he had the opportunity to engage in a broader life experience as a result of increased opportunities for the wheelchair-bound author, student, husband, and father.
The challenge to me is to remember that my little friend is not SMA. He is not a disease, or a condition. He is a little boy, who is a child of God; a kid with a great sense of humor and a lot of spunk. Reading Mattlin’s unflinching account of his development and growth reminded me to treat my friend as an individual with great promise and hope.
The Art of Fielding
By Chad Harbach
Henry Skrimshander is an amazingly gifted shortstop who helps to propel the Westish College (Wisconsin) baseball team to a position of prominence that they’d found to be simply unimaginable. This novel is the story of how Henry came to be at Westish, what happened to him once he arrived, and how the change of fortunes affects students, faculty, and administration at the college. It is a very readable book that explores a number of questions regarding human relationships. I will warn potential readers that there are some fairly graphic descriptions of sexual activity along the way. The main dish explores the hunger for human affection and the ways in which we long to be known; there’s a healthy dose of community and a side of forgiveness as well. If you can borrow a copy, you might enjoy it; I’d say it’s probably not a great enough book to merit buying it new.
Don Quixote de la Mancha
By Miguel de Cervantes
For years, Man of La Mancha has been my all-time favorite musical. There’s not a song I can’t sing verbatim from memory (don’t test me on this!). I have an ancient, and therefore tiny, iPod…not room for much on there, but Richard Kiley’s voice soars as he dreams impossible dreams, repurposes shaving basins, and envisions a new reality for his beloved Dulcinea. I love the story.
Yet when I encountered the novel in book stores or libraries, I was put off by the sheer weight of the tome. It’s a long, long book. And if I were to read it, I reasoned, it’d be my voice, not Richard Kiley’s, echoing through my head. Nevertheless, as I planned the trip to New Zealand this summer, I thought it might be do-able. And then I got a Kindle, and discovered that you could get classics like this FOR FREE. End of story. Or rather, beginning of story. DQdlM has been my companion these past months, and I am pleased to say that I’ve made it all the way to the end of Book 2 chapter 70-something.
It’s easy to see why this is a seminal work in the genre. Cervantes has drawn a series of loveable characters who demonstrate the chasm between what is, what could be, and what ought to be. Because the novel is thicker than the musical, the characters are more deeply defined – although the reader scarcely encounters Aldonza, seeing her almost exclusively through the eyes of Don Quixote. There is a lot of repetition in the story, but all in all, it’s well told and worth a read.
If you see me tilting at windmills, just smile politely and wave. No need to distract me. Thanks.
Get the e-book Free here: http://www.openculture.com/free_ebooks
Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City
My friend Brittany just returned from a year teaching in France. While there, she responded to one of my typical “Pastor Dave pushy emails” asking “hey, what are you reading” by giving me this title. Unfortunately for me, it was, at the time, only available in French. However, I held on and ended up with a first edition copy of this gem.
It’s the first “graphic book” I’ve read – that is, it’s in comic book form. Delisle is a gifted and insightful artist who accompanied his girlfriend (a staff member for Doctors Without Borders) for a year in Jerusalem. He writes from an interesting perspective – a self-professed atheist who sits in the middle of the holiest city on earth and describes the plight of the folks who live there.
Readers of the blog will remember that I had the good fortune of spending a month in the Holy Land in 2010. That hardly makes me an expert – that’s for sure. But there was so much in Delisle’s account that rang true to my experience that I simply devoured the book. I would highly recommend this honest and delightful chronicle to anyone who has traveled to that part of the world…or to anyone who cares about it.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey
By Thornton Wilder
“On Friday afternoon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” With that sentence, Wilder plunges his readers into the story of Brother Juniper, a monk who witnessed that tragedy and then set out upon a rather odd mission: he sought to prove that it was God’s direct plan, rather than bad luck, that led to those specific individuals dying on that bridge that day.
As Brother Juniper’s research is conducted, we are forced to consider what kind of universe we live in, and what kind of God created and rules that universe. Was this a case where the wicked were called to destruction? Or the blessed called to an early entrance into heaven? Can one event have two results?
Asking questions like these can be dangerous, especially to folk who are religious. So it’s no surprise (spoiler alert – although the book has been out since it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928!) that these questions lead to Brother Juniper’s own death.
In the end, this is a story about love and what it means for humans to love and care for each other. It’s not a long read, and I’d recommend it to you!
Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How To Reverse It)
By Robert Lupton
This was one of the most challenging books I’ve read in a long time. Of course, it didn’t help that the night before I got on a plane for a short-term mission trip to Texas, I read Lupton’s assertion that “…most mission trips and service projects…weaken those being served, foster dishonest relationships, erode recipients’ work ethic, deepen dependency…” Ouch!
Lupton knows whereof he writes – he’s got a great deal of experience in changing lives in inner-city Atlanta, any by and large I took this book to be a friendly word of advice to those of us who represent Christ’s body by participating in or funding mission ventures. He has a lot of personal anecdotes that offer new visions for service WITH (not necessarily TO) the poor.
I will continue to plan, lead, and participate in short-term mission trips. But I will do so with Lupton’s words in my ears and, hopefully, my heart. I would enthusiastically recommend this work to anyone who serves with a local church mission committee or a non-profit.
The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow
by Jerome K. Jerome
This collection of essays was first published well over a hundred years ago. Jerome takes a look at the realities of every day life and reflects on them with humor, grace, and insight. You’ll chuckle as you read his thoughts “On Babies” or “On Getting On In The World”. Although his experience was limited to the 19th century, there’s not much about it that doesn’t resonate to our own experience.
Jerome is a gentle writer with powerful imagery, and while you might be tempted to read it for the yuks (as well you should), you will also appreciate the poignancy and depth that he brings to those topics that are common to us all – remembering significant people, dealing with our fears, and assessing our own place in the world.
The dedication of this book is perhaps the single greatest piece of literature I have ever read.
OK, I am probably overstating the case, but when you check it out, you’ll see what I mean.
The good news? You can get it FOR FREE if you have a Kindle.
The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother
by James McBride
McBride was the 8th of 12 children of a rabbi’s daughter who was born in Poland, fled to the US, raised in the south, ran away to Harlem, married a black man, started a Baptist church – and put all 12 kids through college. This book is at once a memoir of his own childhood and a biography of the “mommy” who raised him. It its own right, it’s fascinating.
On a personal note, I was literally caught short when he narrates his experience of living in Wilmington DE for a year and a half or so. He was a couple of years ahead of me in High School, and it turns out that we shared many formative experiences, including traveling to Europe with Hal Schiff and the American Youth Jazz Band and Chorus of Delaware and New Castle County’s racial tensions in the mid-70’s.
This book reads like a novel, and McBride has given the reader a gift. I grabbed it because it was Black History Month…but I would HIGHLY recommend it to anyone.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
By Stieg Larsson
Wow. This is one of the most imaginatively-plotted novels I’ve read in a long, long time. Yes, it is a dark story. And there’s a lot of graphic violence of just about every kind. It is a murder mystery. And a character drama. And a love story (or love stories, to be more precise).
It takes a little while to get into this book, and if you’re not careful, the Swedish names and locales can get a little confusing. But if you stick with it, you’ll find that it’s a powerfully-told story with a lot of twists and turns in it. And better yet, you may find yourself thinking about the ways that the world within this novel challenges you to think about the world you walk around in every day.
Isn’t that one of the best reasons to read stories?
The Hunger Games Trilogy
By Suzanne Collins
All right, I admit it. I wasn’t going to read these. A fad, I said. More teen lit to sell books with lots of white space on the pages and shallow narrative.
Forget it. Suzanne Collins is a pretty darned good story teller. This series explores some really interesting ideas about the nature of freedom and the role of the individual in society; it raises ethical questions about what dissent looks like and what it costs; it paints a rather horrific view of an alternative history of North America; and it invites us to think about interconnectedness and our relationships.
Collins has a vivid imagination – I particularly like the description of creatures like morphs and mockingjays. Readers will be drawn into the saga of Katniss (think Joan of Arc) and her friends Gale, Peeta, and Haymitch. You’ll cringe. You’ll find time for “one more chapter”. You’ll think it’s brain candy.
No mistake: these novels are published by Scholastic Press for the Juvenile Fiction market. It’s not Moby-Dick or Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. But these are fun, thoughtful reads. And good stories.
Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers
By Joan S. Gray
This is a phenomenal book for those who are serving as pastors, elders, or deacons in the Presbyterian Church (USA). It may have value for those in other traditions, but I’m not really qualified to assess that… However, I do know that our elders and our deacons have used this handbook as the basis for our continuing education throughout 2011 and have found it to be engaging, practical, thoughful, and effective in terms of allowing them to know WHAT to do, HOW to do it, and WHY it’s important.
In particular, our officers have appreciated the balance between suggestions for individuals as well as for church structures. There is a constant push and pull between individual accountability and systemic responsibility here that is truly engaging.
Each chapter contains scriptural reflection and concludes with some helpful discussion questions. It is an ideal resource for groups looking to learn more about how to become more effective in ministry.
The Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World
by Rick McKinley, Chris Seay, and Greg Holder.
Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, Love All. Those four imperatives guide the thinking behind this powerful little book that explores ways that followers of Jesus can choose to make Christmas a joyous celebration of the love of God, rather than a monument to the consumerism that shapes our culture.
It’s a very easy read that invites anyone to consider simple and practical changes to the way that we mark this holiday. The authors are supporting Living Water International (www.water.cc) and this book is an invitation to redirect some of our consumer spending towards providing safe and clean drinking water to those who are literally dying for lack of it.
It won’t take you long to read the words…but I hope that you explore the meaning and the content. This volume is also available as a small group study, and there is a DVD devotional that goes along with it. I would heartily recommend it!
Freedom: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen is a magnificent storyteller. He is a wonderful novelist, and this is a powerful book. I know that he is powerful because of how deeply I came to care about the characters in this, his most recent book. What’s interesting about that is the fact that I didn’t really like the characters in Franzen’s story of a family’s struggle through the generations – but I came to care for them.
OK, Dave, so it’s a great novel, right? Well, I’m not so sure about that. The vehicle that Franzen uses to explore notions of freedom is essentially sexuality. While his character development is nothing short of amazing, I’m here to tell you that there were countless pages that I’d have been embarrassed to read aloud to anyone else. If this novel is made into a movie, it’s hard to see it garnering less than a rating of NC-17.
So that’s the conundrum: he explores an important issue (namely, what does it mean to be “free”? Is one freed “from” something or is one freed “for” something?), his choice of metaphor is frankly disturbing to me. It may be that my reaction to this volume is akin to a previous generation’s push-back on A Clockwork Orange.
I guess the best I can say about this volume is that it is a masterfully-told story that narrates the rise and fall (and rise?) of an American family as they come to grips with their desire to be free and the results of that freedom in their lives. In that regard, it’s definitely worth a read. But do so knowing that you may be introducing a number of powerful, violent, and graphic images into your psyche. I’m glad that I read it…but I won’t be buying any copies as gifts, if that helps you decide.
Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, by David Crystal
I purchased this as a resource to use for a series of sermons exploring the impact of the King James Bible on our world and culture. 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of this, what has been called “the most influential book in the English language.”
Crystal has identified 257 idioms that have come into common usage as a result of the King James Bible, including “a fly in the ointment”, “thorn in the flesh”, “am I my brother’s keeper?” and others. He compares the King James Bible to other contemporary translations, such as the Wycliff and Geneva bibles. While there is some brief introductory and concluding material, most of the book is simply a listing of these phrases and an exploration of their usage in contemporary culture. To be honest, that was both a lot of fun and a little frustrating – I kept thinking, “Heck, I know how to work the little Google-thingy, too.”
I have read a number of articles dealing with this topic, and will admit to a bit of shameless geekiness when it comes to the world of words. All in all, I was a little disappointed in Crystal’s work – I was hoping for a deeper reflection on how the idioms have become building blocks of the language. If you’re interested in reading it, send me a note. I’ll loan you my copy.
The Double Comfort Safari Club: A No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Novel, by Alexander McCall Smith
Wow. This is really just a little brain candy, to be honest with you. If you’ve ever read any of the novels in this wonderful series, then you don’t need any push from me to go ahead and take a look at this, the 11th installment in that series. The characters are there and they are deliciously African: when I hear Mma Ramotswe and Rra Radiphuti and the rest of the gang talking about their lives in Botswana, I can smell Malawi and Southern Africa.
The series offers a chance for us to see life in a different perspective, and emphasizes virtues of fidelity and integrity as well as creativity and ingenuity. While the novels do function well as “stand-alone” works, I have enjoyed reading them in sequence.
It’s a great bedside table book – it won’t trouble your sleep and you’ll be glad to have had little layover in Botswana.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, by Eugene Peterson
Now I feel like I’m cheating on a book review page by listing an old favorite like this, but it’s what I’m reading…Our staff at the church is using this volume as a guide for our staff devotional meetings each week.
Peterson takes the “Psalms of Ascent” (Psalms 120-134) and helps us to see and hear the call of God to God’s people – a call to repentance, to celebration, to worship, to discipline…a call to grow in relationship (growth that, as Peterson points out, is not always quick or painless!).
Readers will be encouraged to take some concrete steps in their own spiritual lives and may find “handles” to discuss these spiritual ideas with others. This is a wonderful volume in that it helps us to see that discipleship is not a matter of memorizing facts or parroting beliefs, but rather a daily adventure into deeper intimacy with the Lord.
Turn My Mourning Into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times, by Henri Nouwen
I have never read a Nouwen book that didn’t simultaneously challenge and encourage me. This one is no exception. In five brief chapters, the reader is invited to consider how God may be calling us to move through hard times: from our little selves to a larger world, from holding tight to letting go, from fatalism to hope, from manipulation to love, and from a fearful death to a joyful life.
It is wonderful to read these pastoral words and to consider how they might offer encouragement to folks I know who are in hard times. However, I was disappointed to discover, after my purchase, that this book was released after Nouwen’s death. Timothy Jones pored through a mass of Nouwen’s unpublished writings and compiled this volume in 2001. While Nouwen’s thoughts are, as indicated, stimulating, there is a sense in which the organization of these thoughts is somewhat stilted – as you might expect since Nouwen himself did not envision this as an unbroken manuscript.
I’d encourage anyone to explore the writings of Henri Nouwen; if this is your introduction, then you could surely do a lot worse.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
A friend and I recently watched the 1975 classic in which Jack Nicholson starred (and which was only the second film to ever win all five major Academy Awards). After being reminded of the power of this story of a man’s struggle against the external forces that would define or control him, I thought it would be fun to revisit the novel.
If you’ve only seen the film, you might be surprised that the novel is narrated by “Chief”, who is supposed by all to be a deaf/mute. The reader is privy to his memories and to his attempts to hold his own identity against “the Combine” – the society that robs us of our individuality and processes us all. For instance, he remembers his father in this way:
“My papa was real big. He did like he pleased. That’s why everybody worked on him. The last time I seen my father he was blind in the cities from drinking and every time he put the bottle to his mouth, he don’t suck out of it, it sucks out of him. . . . I’m not saying they killed him. The just worked on him, the way they’re working on you.”
I appreciated the tight dialogue and the obvious connection that Kesey feels with his characters (he worked in a mental hospital prior to writing this book). I also enjoyed watching the interplay between “Red” McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. On a more introspective note, I also found myself challenged by wondering how often I am prone to repeat her mantra:
“Now calm down. The best thing we can do is go on with our daily routine.”
This is an important novel that is well worth revisiting.
Heaven is for Real, by Todd Burpo
This book was handed to me on the way out of church by someone (I honestly can’t remember who) who said, “I’m not sure what to think of this, but I think you’ll appreciate it.”
I’m not sure what to think of it, either. It’s a father’s account of his four-year-old son’s “trip to heaven and back”. Little Colton had an emergency appendectomy, and in the months that followed, he described things that he “saw” while he was near death.
Theologically, I’m befuddled by this – because it’s not how I think things should be. As a parent, child, and lover of Jesus, frankly, I kind of hope it’s like this. At any rate, it’s a quick read, and an interesting “what if” sort of exploration. And, as the back of the jacket indicates, it offers an opportunity to see, and believe, like a child.
The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain, by Mark Twain
Warning: English Major Alert. I’m a geek. Especially a geek for Mark Twain’s witty and incisive writing. Every one of his 60 short stories are contained in this volume. Many of them appear to be dated, most of them require some sort of ability to envision oneself in a different place or time. However, none of that should infringe upon your enjoyment of these classics.
Twain was an insightful observer of the human race, and in these stories he pokes fun at his wife’s incessant worrying (especially through the experience of the McWilliamses), he chides us for our haste to acquire more, faster, sooner (The $30,000 Bequest), and he holds up an unflattering mirror to our culture (The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg).
This is one for the nightstand or the beach.
Anatomy of the Soul, by Curt Thompson, M.D.
OK, first a disclaimer. Curt Thompson is a friend of mine, and a man who has shaped my life more than he realizes. I have learned a great deal from him – some by reading books like this, and more by watching him treat the world.
Anatomy of the Soul is a wonder-filled book that explores the relationship between neuroscience and spirituality. One of the best things about the way that Curt puts this together is that you don’t have to be an expert in either field for his ideas to make sense. You have to be a child of God who is eager to understand at a deeper level the ways that God has made you.
To quote from a letter I wrote to Curt after having read this book,
You have given me a vocabulary for some things that I have known/sensed/imagined/be-lived for a long time, but have not been able to verbalize or articulate. You have spoken the truth – you have named it, you have given it handles…
I was struck by the many, many ways that you encourage and help me to en-vision friendship that is free from shame, from blaming, from counterproductive behaviors that drive us more deeply into the sin that puts us in places like this.
Curt ends his book with these words:
“This is intended to be a book about hope. My desire is that you have been persuaded that
– there is real hope for change in all the relational areas that count, and that
– hope in God’s Kingdom is not merely a theological construct but is being actively co-constructed by God and the rest of us as we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.”
I am persuaded. I bet you will be, too.
“Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid”, by Jimmy Carter
I have to say that I went to the Middle East in 2010 as a fairly disinterested participant in the generational-long quest for peace in that region of the world. I thought, “well, some of the great minds in the world are at work on this problem…and they’ve been at it for so long…” Yet as my posts from that time may indicate, when we arrived in Israel and saw the great disparity between the lives on one side of “the separation barrier” or “the segregation barrier” or “the wall” (depending on who is telling the story), my heart was broken. While I am not exactly sure what will make that situation better, I know that what exists now is wrong.
Carter’s book is an attempt to outline the history of the struggles in the region and contains some very helpful maps as well as some great source documents, including the text of UN Resolutions 242 and 338, the Camp David Accords, the Arab Peace Proposal of 2002 and the 2003 Israeli response. He offers wise advice to those in power, and speaks with integrity.
The thing that struck me most vividly about the book is his description of the time that he, Sadat, and Begin spent together at Camp David. They were there nearly two weeks. I wonder what would happen if our leaders were willing to commit that kind of time together, away from the cameras and sound bites, addressing significant problems. The Camp David Accords provide some great starting points for peace. I believe it’s time for the US, Israel, and the Arab nations to move forward on addressing these issues of justice and peace.
I realize being in Israel for a week doesn’t make me an expert. But I have to say that when I hold the images from that week up to those in my mind from the visits I have made to Soweto in South Africa, to East and West Berlin and other countries behind the “Iron Curtain” (prior to the fall of the Soviet Union), and to the US/Mexico border…it’s all the same. Walls are reminders of evil and injustice, and I would hope that my nation would do more to create realities whereby they are unnecessary…that justice would flow…that peace would reign.
The Pastor: A Memoir, by Eugene H. Peterson
There are few people who have had as direct an impact on my practice of faith and vocation as Eugene Peterson. From the time at Twelve Corners Church 20 years ago where I sat, agape, listening to the lessons he put forth to a young pastor in “Working the Angles” to the conversations with which he has mentored me during tough times in my own ministry, I am always eager to sit under this man’s teaching.
Only this book is not so didactic. As I read the story of Eugene’s first “convert” and proceed to hear about his father’s butcher shop, the basement sanctuary in Maryland, and the reports to denominational headquarters, I felt as though I’d been invited into his attic and given reign to look around and ask “What’s this?” and wait for the stories to pour forth.
And pour they do. Eugene invites us into his life – his life in Christ, his life in marriage, his life in ministry. And as he does, we get a glimpse of ourselves and the One who calls us to our lives and relationships. If you are a pastor looking for a helpful conversation with a trusted colleague, read this book. If you want to bless a pastor friend, give her or him this book. I found myself laying in bed reading especially humorous or poignant passages out loud to my wife…I think you may do the same.
“Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food” by Paul Greenberg
This is a book that ties directly into the things that led me to pursue “the fisherman’s jubilee” as a theme for Sabbatical. What does it mean for us to view the ocean and its bounty as another commodity to be traded, tamed, used, or abused? In this insightful book, writer (and fisherman) Paul Greenberg first points out that fish is the last remaining link that many of us have to the “hunter-gatherer” culture – it is, by and large, the only “wild” food that most Americans will ever sample.
Greenberg focuses, Michael Pollan-style, on four fish: bass, salmon, cod, and tuna, and he narrates the history of humanity’s relationship with those animals. There is very little jargon in this book, and it really increased my understanding of the practice of aquaculture and fish farming.
I have to admit, I saw a lot of myself in his childhood stories, and was again grateful for my Dad and his willingness to hop in a rowboat at Indian River Inlet in Delaware and let us try our luck with the flounder, the blues, or the croaker.
If you are interested in thinking critically about what you eat and why you eat it, as well as the impact that your diet has on the rest of the planet, then I’d heartily suggest this book.
Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions
by Rachel Held Evans. In a recent post, I mentioned the fact that I have been taught by some phenomenal young writers in recent years. This is a very readable book that describes the author’s reaction to a time of great struggle and doubt. Having grown up in a culture of fundamentals and apologetics, Evans suddenly found herself asking questions that she never thought she would. In particular, I appreciate the honest, forthright language that neither hides the truth of the messiness of our lives nor makes it overly dramatic. The reason I bought this book was when I read on Rachel’s blog these lines from the book:
I used to be a fundamentalist. Not the Teletubby-hating, apocalypse-ready, Jerry Falwell type of fundamentalist, but the kind who thinks that God is pretty much figured out already, that he’s done telling us anything new.
I was a fundamentalist in the sense that I thought salvation means having the right opinions about God and that fighting the good fight of faith requires defending those opinions at all costs. I was a fundamentalist because my security and self-worth and sense of purpose in life were all wrapped up in getting God right—in believing the right things about him, saying the right things about him, and convincing others to embrace the right things about him too. Good Christians, I believed, don’t succumb to the shifting sands of culture. Good Christians, I used to think, don’t change their minds.
My friend Adele describes fundamentalism as holding so tightly to your beliefs that you fingernails leave imprints on the palm of your hand. Adele is gay, so she knows better than most people how sharp those fingernails can be. And I think she’s right. I was a fundamentalist not because of the beliefs I held but because of how I held them: with a death grip. It would take God himself to finally pry some of them out of my hands. (p. 17-18)
This is an articulate, generous book that I would recommend to anyone who is eager to hear the voice of one who speaks eloquently of the depth of the promises of God. I’d lend you my copy but I’ve already given it away…