What I Read January - June, part 1 [from the book pile 2019]

Oh goodness, how have six+ months gone by without a reading update?!? Life’s been a bit upside down lately, and I’m especially grateful for the companionship of good books. Hope you enjoy the micro reviews + publisher blurbs! Let me know if you add anything from this list to your book pile!

Sharing books from my Madeleine L’Engle collection at our reading group this spring.

Sharing books from my Madeleine L’Engle collection at our reading group this spring.

You can see my 2018 reading list here. | You can see all my reading lists since 2006 here.

One other note: A couple years ago I began using Amazon affiliate links as a way to bring in some pocket change from the books I share on the blog. I was challenged by an independent bookseller to reconsider this strategy as Amazon has a horrible reputation in its dealings with authors and other members of the book industry. I want to champion local business and humane working relationships and so I've included an IndieBound link that will direct you to purchase any of the following books from an independent bookseller near you. I've also included the order link for one of my new favorite booksellers, Hearts and Minds Books.  Using the link I've provided you can order any book through heartsandmindsbooks.com, a full service, independent bookstore and receive prompt and personal service. They even offer the option to receive the order with an invoice and a return envelope so you can send them a check! Brian and I've been delighted with the generous attention we've received from owners Byron and Beth Borger. We feel like we've made new friends! (I also highly recommend subscribing to Byron's passionately instructive and prolific Booknotes posts.)


Novels

1. Children of God: A Novel (The Sparrow Series)
By Mary Doria Russell (Fawcett Books, 1999. 438 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

"The only member of the original mission to the planet Rakhat to return to Earth, Father Emilio Sandoz has barely begun to recover from his ordeal when the Society of Jesus calls upon him for help in preparing for another mission to Alpha Centauri. Despite his objections and fear, he cannot escape his past or the future.

Old friends, new discoveries and difficult questions await Emilio as he struggles for inner peace and understanding in a moral universe whose boundaries now extend beyond the solar system and whose future lies with children born in a faraway place.

Strikingly original, richly plotted, replete with memorable characters and filled with humanity and humor, Children of God is an unforgettable and uplifting novel that is a potent successor to The Sparrow and a startlingly imaginative adventure for newcomers to Mary Doria Russell’s special literary magic.”

Micro Review: The first book in this two-part series, The Sparrow, was one of the best books I read in 2014, ending up on my top 15 life-changing books since I started keeping track on this blog in 2008. I’d heard that the follow-up, Children of God, was generally good but not enjoyed quite as much by fans of The Sparrow, and I’d agree with that consensus. The first book just about wrecked me -- in mostly good ways. Since it falls in the category of Sci-Fi, I'd probably not have picked it up on my own. But some dear friends shared how much they'd loved the story of -- well, a Jesuit priest in outer space. With only a little bit of experience reading science fiction, I've quickly learned that the power of the genre -- for me -- is the way a well-told story of an imaginary land and its inhabitants can help me reframe the powerful drama of my own land and species in the most surprising, touching ways. This was the case for me reading about the brave team of space explorers hoping to give and receive love on the planet Rakhat -- for some, even the love of the Gospel of Christ. The devastating results of offering pure, but misunderstood, love mirrors all the great tragedies we know since the beginning of man. And the beginning of my very own life on Earth. Children of God split the storyline between Earth and Rakhat and I found that the Rakhat story more compelling. Emilio Sandoz lost a little bit of his shine for me as he tries to recover from trauma and re-enter regular relationships on earth. I understood the trauma, but struggled more with his romantic choices and the results of his forced participation in a Rakhat rescue. The story arc was still compelling and one of the only books I’ve read that I can authentically attribute the over-used descriptor of “spellbinding.”

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve read either of Mary Doria' Russell’s Sparrow books! How do you feel about them?

2. This Must Be the Place: A Novel
By Maggie O’Farrell (Knopf, 2016. 400 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

"An irresistible love story, an unforgettable family. Best-selling author Maggie O’Farrell captures an extraordinary marriage with insight and laugh-out-loud humor in what Richard Russo calls “her breakout book.” Perfect for readers of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Meet Daniel Sullivan, a man with a complicated life. A New Yorker living in the wilds of Ireland, he has children he never sees in California, a father he loathes in Brooklyn, and a wife, Claudette, who is a reclusive ex–film star given to pulling a gun on anyone who ventures up their driveway. Claudette was once the most glamorous and infamous woman in cinema before she staged her own disappearance and retreated to blissful seclusion in an Irish farmhouse.

But the life Daniel and Claudette have so carefully constructed is about to be disrupted by an unexpected discovery about a woman Daniel lost touch with twenty years ago. This revelation will send him off-course, far away from wife, children, and home. Will his love for Claudette be enough to bring him back?”

Micro Review:

I first heard about this title on a One Great Book podcast with Modern Mrs. Darcy: Volume 1, Book 8 - “if you have a place in your heart and on your shelves for inventive, emotionally resonant literary fiction, that sometimes flouts convention but does it with purpose, whose characters you might love not in spite of, but because of, their flaws, This Must Be the Place may be the next great book you’re looking for.”

This was an enjoyable read with interesting characters, easy-to-follow timeline shifts in the narrative arc, and a satisfactory plot ending. My main disappointment is that while a large portion of the book was set in Ireland, we didn’t get much of a “feel” for the place outside of a few mentions here and there. If Ireland is a setting I want to FEEL IT!


Mysteries

3. The Cruelest Month: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel (Volume 3)
By Louise Penny (Minotaur Books, 2011. 320 pages)

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"Welcome to Three Pines, where the cruelest month is about to deliver on its threat.
It's spring in the tiny, forgotten village; buds are on the trees and the first flowers are struggling through the newly thawed earth. But not everything is meant to return to life. . .
When some villagers decide to celebrate Easter with a séance at the Old Hadley House, they are hoping to rid the town of its evil---until one of their party dies of fright. Was this a natural death, or was the victim somehow helped along?
Brilliant, compassionate Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is called to investigate, in a case that will force him to face his own ghosts as well as those of a seemingly idyllic town where relationships are far more dangerous than they seem.”

Micro Review: This series has been a quiet little luxury during some difficult days. I read the books kind of like I eat a bowl of popcorn - mostly light and airy with an occasional kernel of buttery goodness. It’s the kind of series I can pick up whenever I need to just read without much brain work but still appreciate the redemptive story arc.

4. A Rule Against Murder: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel (Volume 4)
By Louise Penny (Minotaur Books, 2011. 336 pages)

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"What happened here last night isn't allowed," said Madame Dubois.
It was such an extraordinary thing to say it stopped the ravenous Inspector Beauvoir from taking another bite of his roast beef on baguette.

"You have a rule against murder?" he asked.

"I do. When my husband and I bought the Bellechasse we made a pact....Everything that stepped foot on this land would be safe."

It is the height of summer, and Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache are celebrating their wedding anniversary at Manoir Bellechasse, an isolated, luxurious inn not far from the village of Three Pines. But they're not alone. The Finney family—rich, cultured, and respectable—has also arrived for a celebration of their own.

The beautiful Manoir Bellechasse might be surrounded by nature, but there is something unnatural looming. As the heat rises and the humidity closes in, some surprising guests turn up at the family reunion, and a terrible summer storm leaves behind a dead body. It is up to Chief Inspector Gamache to unearth secrets long buried and hatreds hidden behind polite smiles. The chase takes him to Three Pines, into the dark corners of his own life, and finally to a harrowing climax.”

Micro Review: See above.

5. The Brutal Telling: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel (Volume 5)
By Louise Penny (Minotaur Books, 2017. 400 pages)

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"The wise and beleaguered Chief Inspector Armand Gamache returns to Three Pines The Brutal Telling, the fifth book in Louise Penny's #1 New York Times bestselling series.

Chaos is coming, old son. 

With those words the peace of Three Pines is shattered. Everybody goes to Olivier's Bistro—including a stranger whose murdered body is found on the floor. When Chief Inspector Gamache is called to investigate, he is dismayed to discover that Olivier's story is full of holes. Why are his fingerprints all over the cabin that's uncovered deep in the wilderness, with priceless antiques and the dead man's blood? And what other secrets and layers of lies are buried in the seemingly idyllic village?

Gamache follows a trail of clues and treasures—from first editions of Charlotte's Web and Jane Eyre to a spiderweb with a word mysteriously woven in it—into the woods and across the continent, before returning to Three Pines to confront the truth and the final, brutal telling.”

Micro Review: See above. I’ll add that I found the mystery angle of this story especially compelling.

6. Bury Your Dead: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel (Volume 6)
By Louise Penny (Minotaur Books, 2011. 400 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

"It is Winter Carnival in Quebec City, bitterly cold and surpassingly beautiful. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache has come not to join the revels but to recover from an investigation gone hauntingly wrong. But violent death is inescapable, even in the apparent sanctuary of the Literary and Historical Society--where an obsessive historian's quest for the remains of the founder of Quebec, Samuel de Champlain, ends in murder. Could a secret buried with Champlain for nearly four hundred years be so dreadful that someone would kill to protect it?

Meanwhile, Gamache is receiving disquieting letters from the village of Three Pines, where beloved Bistro owner Olivier was recently convicted of murder. "It doesn't make sense," Olivier's partner writes every day. "He didn't do it, you know."

As past and present collide in this astonishing novel, Gamache must relive a terrible event from his own past before he can begin to bury his dead.”

Micro Review: See above. I’ll add that I loved the opportunity to get out of the quirky, but loveable Three Pines community into the rich, historical setting of Quebec. Montreal is totally on our travel bucket list! I also appreciated the way the mysteries included the current crime and a revisit to an old, somewhat unresolved crime from a previous book.


Short Stories

7. Strange Pilgrims
By Gabriel García Márquez (Convergent Books, 2016. 224 pages)

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"In Barcelona, an aging Brazilian prostitute trains her dog to weep at the grave she has chosen for herself. In Vienna, a woman parlays her gift for seeing the future into a fortunetelling position with a wealthy family. In Geneva, an ambulance driver and his wife take in the lonely, apparently dying ex-President of a Caribbean country, only to discover that his political ambition is very much intact.

In these twelve masterly stories about the lives of Latin Americans in Europe, García Márquez conveys the peculiar amalgam of melancholy, tenacity, sorrow, and aspiration that is the émigré experience.”

Micro Review: My friend Ryan loaned me this book with the invitation to try reading Gabriel García Márquez again after I gave up on his acclaimed One Hundred Years of Solitude which I gave up on pretty quickly. He was right. The short story format was a better genre to get to know the author and I waded through them like a walk on the seashore - refreshing, beautiful, and occasionally, mesmerizing. I think more than anything plot-driven, I found the author’s ability to describe settings and characters in story after story affecting me like wave after wave (twelve stories in all) of sharp but alluring prose.

As an example, I could read this character description over and over just for the hypnotic quality of the combination of words (and this is the translation!):

“She was beautiful and lithe, with soft skin the color of bread and eyes like green almonds, and she had straight black hair that reached to her shoulders, and an aura of antiquity that could just as well have been Indonesian as Andean. She was dressed with subtle taste: a lynx jacket, a raw silk blouse with very delicate flowers, natural linen trousers, and shoes with a narrow stripe the color of bougainvillea. 'This is the most beautiful woman I've ever seen,' I thought, when I saw her pass by with the stealthy stride of a lioness, while I waited in the check-in line at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris for the plane to New York. ”
- Gabriel García Márquez, Strange Pilgrims


Apostles Reads Selections

8. Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art
By Madeleine L’Engle (Convergent Books, 2016. 224 pages)

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"In this classic book, Madeleine L'Engle addresses the questions, What does it mean to be a Christian artist? and What is the relationship between faith and art? Through L'Engle's beautiful and insightful essay, readers will find themselves called to what the author views as the prime tasks of an artist: to listen, to remain aware, and to respond to creation through one's own art.”

Micro Review: I re-read this book with our church’s reading group for Epiphany and loved it every bit as much the second (third?) time around. The theme of invisible being made visible in the everyday world is perfect for Epiphany when we read through the accounts of Jesus’ being revealed as God in some of the most famous Gospel encounters.

It’s the perfect book to read with friends interested in the ways art and artists tell the story of truth, goodness, and beauty in this world.

9. Hinds’ Feet On High Places: An Engaging Visual Journey
By Hannah Hurnard, Illustrated By Jill de Haan and Rachel McNaughton (Tyndale House Publishers, 2017. 160 pages)

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"Journey with Much-Afraid to new heights of love, joy, and victory. For the first time, this beloved Christian allegory is a mixed-media special edition complete with charming watercolor paintings, antique tinted photography, meditative hand-lettered Scripture, journaling and doodling space, and designs to color. As you read and connect with the story of Much-Afraid and her trials, the pages of this book become a canvas on which to chronicle your own story, struggles, and personal triumphs.

Hinds' Feet on High Places, with more than 2,000,000 copies sold, is a story of endurance, persistence, and reliance on God. This book has inspired millions of people to become sure-footed in their faith even when facing the rockiest of life's terrain. The story of Much-Afraid is based on Psalm 18:33: "He makes me as surefooted as a deer, enabling me to stand on mountain heights."

The complete Hinds' Feet story is accented by 80 full-color paintings, photography, and hand-lettered Scripture.”

Micro Review: We read this beloved Christian allegory with our church’s reading group for Lent this year. I selected this beautiful mixed-media special edition complete with charming watercolor paintings, antique tinted photography, meditative hand-lettered Scripture, journaling and doodling space, and designs to color. I’ve lost track of the number of times since Easter that I’ve thought back to Much-Afraid’s challenging journey to her new identity of Grace and Glory. I’ll return to this devotional year after year.


Spirituality / Non-Fiction

10. Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace
By Christie Purifoy (Zondervan, 2019. 224 pages)

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"Images of comfortable kitchens and flower-filled gardens stir something deep within us--we instinctively long for home. In a world of chaos and conflict, we want a place of comfort and peace.

In Placemaker, Christie Purifoy invites us to notice our soul's desire for beauty, our need to create and to be created again and again. As she reflects on the joys and sorrows of two decades as a placemaker and her recent years living in and restoring a Pennsylvania farmhouse, Christie shows us that we are all gardeners. No matter our vocation, we spend much of our lives tending, keeping, and caring. In each act of creation, we reflect the image of God. In each moment of making beauty, we realize that beauty is a mystery to receive.

Weaving together her family's journey with stories of botanical marvels and the histories of the flawed yet inspiring placemakers who shaped the land generations ago, Christie calls us to cultivate orchards and communities, to clap our hands along with the trees of the fields. Placemaker is a timely yet timeless reminder that the cultivation of good and beautiful places is not a retreat from the real world but a holy pursuit of a world that is more real than we know. A call to tend the soul, the land, and the places we share with one another. A reminder that we are always headed home.”

Micro Review: I was able to review Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace by Christie Purifoy for Englewood Review of Books
A Flouring Tree, A Feature Review:

Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, encourages writers to remember Thoreau’s salient recommendation: “Circle round and round your life… Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.” If it’s possible to gnaw a bone elegantly, Christie Purifoy does just that in her newly-released second book, Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace. Like her debut, Roots & Sky, Purifoy continues to circle round and round the subject of finding, losing, and making home.

With regard to Thoreau, a more apt metaphor Placemaker might be sitting under the shade of a tree we didn’t plant. Purifoy provides a virtual grove of shade trees gathered from the landscapes of the places she’s lived throughout her life. Not unlike Annie Dillard (or Thoreau) in her diligence to wring wonder from the natural world, Christie Purifoy offers readers glimpses of the universe’s deepest truth, goodness, and beauty from the fauna and flora we encounter in the ordinary places we make our homes.”

You can read the rest of my review describing why I loved this book and some of the trees in my own story here.

11. The Sabbath (FSG Classics)
By Abraham Joshua Heschel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 144 pages)

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"Elegant, passionate, and filled with the love of God's creation, Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Sabbath has been hailed as a classic of Jewish spirituality ever since its original publication-and has been read by thousands of people seeking meaning in modern life. In this brief yet profound meditation on the meaning of the Seventh Day, Heschel introduced the idea of an "architecture of holiness" that appears not in space but in time Judaism, he argues, is a religion of time: it finds meaning not in space and the material things that fill it but in time and the eternity that imbues it, so that "the Sabbaths are our great cathedrals."

Micro Review: This was a re-read for me in order to follow along with Englewood Review of Books’ Lenten online reading group. I facilitated one of the sessions. You can see my questions for Chapters 7-9 here.

Here’s an excerpt from my reflection following the first time I read the book (back in 2015):

Even though I'd always meant to read it because Abraham Joshua Heschel is quoted by almost every author I've ever read (usually from this book), I'll admit it was seeing an image of the cover art that finally got me to purchase the book.  The prints of wood engravings by Ilya Schor on the cover and at the beginning of each chapter provide an elegance to Heschel's graceful words about the beauty of Sabbath time to Jewish faith and life.  Heschel's words are poetic (at times, even, mythical) which I found captivating enough, but especially so when paired with his daughter's prologue to the book which explained in more day-to-day (week-to-week, rather) terms of what a Sabbath practice looked like in her father's home.

Beautiful.”


Christian Perspective / Social Issues

12. Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness
By Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Foreword by Justin Welby (Brazos Press, 2015. 240 pages)

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"Where is God in the suffering of a mentally ill person? What happens to the soul when the mind is ill? How are Christians to respond to mental illness? In this brave and compassionate book, theologian and priest Kathryn Greene-McCreight confronts these difficult questions raised by her own mental illness--bipolar disorder. With brutal honesty, she tackles often avoided topics such as suicide, mental hospitals, and electroconvulsive therapy. Greene-McCreight offers the reader everything from poignant and raw glimpses into the mind of a mentally ill person to practical and forthright advice for their friends, family, and clergy.

The first edition has been recognized as one of the finest books on the subject. This thoroughly revised edition incorporates updated research and adds anecdotal and pastoral commentary. It also includes a new foreword by the current Archbishop of Canterbury and a new afterword by the author.”

Micro Review: We’re walking with a loved one suffering from severe depression. Friends loaned us Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s book and I’d recommend it to everyone wanting to be a good gift to mental illness. May our tribe increase.

13. Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible
By M. Daniel Carroll R. (Brazos Press, 2013. 170 pages)

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"Immigration is one of the most pressing issues on the national agenda. In this accessible book, an internationally recognized immigration expert helps readers think biblically about this divisive issue, offering accessible, nuanced, and sympathetic guidance for the church. As both a Guatemalan and an American, the author is able to empathize with both sides of the struggle and argues that each side has much to learn.

This updated and revised edition reflects changes from the past five years, responds to criticisms of the first edition, and expands sections that have raised questions for readers. It includes a foreword by Samuel Rodriguez and an afterword by Ronald Sider. This timely, clear, and compassionate resource will benefit all Christians who are thinking through the immigration issue..”

Micro Review: We had the privilege of hearing Danny Carroll speak at our diocesan convention last autumn on the biblical lens for immigration. Put this at the top of your reading and listening lists. You can see each of his three plenary talks from the weekend here. If you aren’t able to read the book right away, you can also hear the author in this series of brief videos.

The entire thread weaving through all of Scripture places priority on the foreigner and stranger. To think Christianly about immigration is actually pretty plain. Policies are complex and require good governance. The posture of anyone who lives within the Kingdom of Christ toward immigrants is straightforward. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.


Plough Book Reviews

14. Jean Vanier: Portrait of A Free Man
By Anne-Sophie Constant, Translated By Allen Page (Plough Publishing House, August 2019. 250 pages)

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"The life of Jean Vanier, founder of l’Arche, who changed the way the world views disability

It’s a crazy story. In August 1964 a thirty-six-year-old Canadian from a famous family – one who has already joined the navy during war at age thirteen, become an officer, earned a PhD, and taught ethics at the University of Toronto -- takes up residence in a little house he just bought in the village of Trosly, France, with two mentally disabled men he has removed from a care home. The house, which he calls l’Arche (the Ark), has neither water nor electricity. His plan? None. He is just convinced he has to do it, touched by the silent cry of these men shut up in the gloomy, violent institution where he found them. His example is contagious; within months the community has grown to over fifty.

Jean Vanier is known and loved around the world for having created L'Arche, those unique communities of people with disabilities and their volunteer caregivers in more than one hundred and fifty sites on five continents. But Vanier is also a philosopher, a spiritual master who touches believers and nonbelievers alike, a tireless messenger of peace and ecumenism, and an adventurer with life full of twists and turns. Anne-Sophie Constant's literary biography paints a rare portrait of this extraordinary man and the events and influences that shaped his destiny.

“The story of Jean Vanier is the story of a free man – a man who knew how to become himself, who knew how to free himself from restraints, opinions, and prejudices; from intellectual, religious or moral habits; from his epoch; from popular opinion. . . . Jean Vanier has transformed the lives of thousands and thousands of mentally disabled people. And he has transformed the understanding of thousands of people regarding the disabilities of their own children and of people with disabilities. Where we see only failure, disgrace, impossibility, limit, weakness, ugliness, and suffering, Jean Vanier sees beauty. And he knows how to open the eyes of others to see it..”

Micro Review: It’s a curious thing about us humans that we often delay our acquaintanceship with the work of remarkable humans until they die. For that reason, this August may be perfect timing for this new release from Plough Publishing House as the world mourns the loss of Jean Vanier, age 90, in May. For those like me who have circled around the writing and wisdom of the man who traded in a life of the political and academic elite to found L’Arche, an international federation of communities spread over 37 countries, for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. I find these kinds of biographies that provide background and context for the lives of those who so deeply influence the world helpful as a launch into the primary sources written by the figures themselves. I’m looking forward to reading deeply through Vanier’s writing and grateful to Anne-Sophie Constant and Plough for inviting me into the circle of those who knew the man firsthand.

More than anything I want to, in the words of the Apostle Paul, put on Jean Vanier as he put on Christ. I want to become more fully human in the process of companioning others to do the same. Thanks to this portrait of Vanier’s life I will always imagine the Kingdom of Christ like the crowd who gathered for L’Arche’s fiftieth-anniversary celebration. Here’s the description from the book’s epilogue:

“[The festival} took place on September 27 [2014]. To the surprise of the passersby, there was a gigantic parade of seven thousand people marching from the Hôtel de Ville to the Place de la République. The crowd shouted, sang, and danced in the streets as colorful balloons floated into the air. “What are you demonstrating against?” people asked. “Against nothing! We’re celebrating! Come dance and eat cake with us.”… So they danced on the Place de la République - marchers, wheelchairs, and pedestrians all mixed together.”

May each protest I offer against all that is inhuman and unlove have the air of the celebration that the Kingdom is here and now and through what Vanier described as the “sacrament of the poor” can be lived in the good company of Jesus who invites us all, like little children, into the belovedness of God.

15. At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl
By Hans Scholl and Sophie Scholl, Edited by Inge Jens, Translated by J. Maxwell Brownjohn (Plough Publishing House, 2017. 381 pages)

Amazon | Plough Publishing House | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

"Personal letters and diaries provide an intimate view into the hearts and minds of a brother and sister who became martyrs in the anti-Nazi resistance during World War II.

Idealistic, serious, and sensible, Hans and Sophie Scholl joined the Hitler Youth with youthful and romantic enthusiasm. But as Hitler’s grip throttled Germany and Nazi atrocities mounted, Hans and Sophie emerged from their adolescence with the conviction that at all costs they must raise their voices against the murderous Nazi regime.

In May of 1942, with Germany still winning the war, an improbable little band of students at Munich University began distributing the leaflets of the White Rose. In the very city where the Nazis got their start, they demanded resistance to Germany’s war efforts and confronted their readers with what they had learned of Hitler’s “final solution”: “Here we see the most terrible crime committed against the dignity of humankind, a crime that has no counterpart in human history.”

These broadsides were secretly drafted and printed in a Munich basement by Hans Scholl, by now a young medical student and military conscript, and a handful of young co-conspirators that included his twenty-one-year-old sister Sophie. The leaflets placed the Scholls and their friends in mortal danger, and it wasn’t long before they were captured and executed.

As their letters and diaries reveal, the Scholls were not primarily motivated by political beliefs, but rather came to their convictions through personal spiritual search that eventually led them to sacrifice their lives for what they believed was right. Interwoven with commentary on the progress of Hitler’s campaign, the letters and diary entries range from veiled messages about the course of a war they wanted their country to lose, to descriptions of hikes and skiing trips and meditations on Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Rilke, and Verlaine; from entreaties to their parents for books and sweets hard to get in wartime, to deeply humbled and troubled entreaties to God for an understanding of the presence of such great evil in the world. There are alarms when Hans is taken into military custody, when their father is jailed, and when their friends are wounded on the eastern front. But throughout―even to the end, when the Scholls’ sense of peril is most oppressive―there appear in their writings spontaneous outbursts of joy and gratitude for the gifts of nature, music, poetry, and art. In the midst of evil and degradation, theirs is a celebration of the spiritual and the humane.

Illustrated with photographs of Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friends and co-conspirators..”

Micro Review: I’d never heard of Hans and Sophie Scholl or the White Rose before receiving this book from Plough Publishing. In one way I’m glad to be just learning their story now against the backdrop or our current political and cultural climate. I’m beginning to understand that the one-dimensional understanding of anyone loyal to Hitler’s Germany has created massive blind spots and harmful ignorance in our belief that we’re living on the “right side of history.” May God raise up many more Hans and Sophie Scholls in our day. May we, like these young, idealists be willing as their peer in the resistance, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, allow all our wish-dreams to be shattered by Jesus.

And even then, in our zeal for Christ’s Kingdom to be on earth as it is in heaven, may we like Sophie Scholl never lose sight of the beauty of our Father’s world who wrote during her final autumn - a few months before her execution by the Nazi government ruling her beloved Germany:

“Now I’m delighting once more in the last rays of the sun and marveling at the incredible beauty of all that wasn’t created by man: the red dahlias beside the white garden gate, the tall, solemn fir trees, the tremulous, gold-draped birches whose gleaming trunks stand out against all the green and russet foliage, and the golden sunshine that intensifies the colors of each individual object, unlike the blazing summer sun, which overpowers anything else that tries to stir. It’s all so wonderfully beautiful here that I’ve no idea what kind of emotion my speechless heart should develop for it, because it’s too immature to take pure pleasure in it. It merely marvels and contents itself with wonder and enchantment - isn’t it mysterious - and frightening, too, when one doesn’t know the reason - that everything should be so beautiful in spite of the terrible things that are happening? My sheer delight in all things beautiful has been invaded by a great unknown, an inkling of the creator whom his creatures glorify with their beauty. - That’s why mane alone can be ugly, because he has the free will to disassociate himself from this song of praise. Nowadays one is often tempted to believe that he’ll drown the song with gunfire and curses and blasphemy. But it dawned on me last spring that he can’t, and I’ll try to take the winning side.”

Read this book with a side of humble curiosity and then pass it on.

16. The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selections from His Poems, Letters, Journals, and Spiritual Writings (The Gospel in Great Writers)
By Gerard Manley Hopkins and Margaret R. Ellsberg, Foreword by Dana Gioia (Plough Publishing House, 2017. 268 pages)

Amazon | Plough Publishing House | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

"How did a Catholic priest who died a failure become one of the world’s greatest poets? Discover in his own words the struggle for faith that gave birth to some of the best spiritual poetry of all time.

Gerard Manley Hopkins deserves his place among the greatest poets in the English language. He ranks seventh among the most frequently reprinted English-language poets, surpassed only by Shakespeare, Donne, Blake, Dickinson, Yeats, and Wordsworth.

Yet when the English Jesuit priest died of typhoid fever at age forty-four, he considered his life a failure. He never would have suspected that his poems, which would not be published for another twenty-nine years, would eventually change the course of modern poetry and influence such poets as W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Geoffrey Hill, and Seamus Heaney. Like his contemporaries Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Hopkins revolutionized poetic language.

And yet we love Hopkins not only for his literary genius but for the hard-won faith that finds expression in his verse. Who else has captured the thunderous voice of God and the grandeur of his creation on the written page as Hopkins has? Seamlessly weaving together selections from Hopkins’s poems, letters, journals, and sermons, Peggy Ellsberg lets the poet tell the story of a life-long struggle with faith that gave birth to some of the best poetry of all time. Even readers who spurn religious language will find in Hopkins a refreshing, liberating way to see God’s hand at work in the world.”

Micro Review: I re-read this insightful book for a Selah assignment this spring to study a Christian mystic. I was delighted to discover that one of my favorites, Gerard Manley Hopkins, included in a list of English mystic poets on God in nature.

Here’s my mini-review from my first read back in 2017:

I'm grateful for any opportunity I have to learn an artist through his life story. There are drawbacks, of course. Sometimes it's hard to look a hero in the proverbial eye through their letters and journal entries. It's hard to hear the doubt, insecurity, and suffering of the people who've introduced so much beauty into the world. Oh my goodness, Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems are beautiful. And his suffering was real. My favorite part of the book is still the poems, which I guess I could read in his collected works, but I've learned that I often prefer to read and study artists' work within the context of their everyday lives. 

Here's my all-time favorite Hopkins line from The Wreck of the Deutschland: "Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east".

Yes, let it be so.


Go to my reading lists page to see my reading lists from 2018 and previous years.

Here's my Goodreads page. Let's be friends!

Linking up with another good reading resource: Modern Mrs. Darcy's monthly Quick Lit post.

I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!  

What are you reading these days? 

#

p.s. This post includes affiliate links in this post because I'm trying to be a good steward, and when you buy something through one of these links you don't pay more money, but in some magical twist of capitalism we get a little pocket change. Thanks!

What I Read October - December 2018

With the increased reading for my spiritual direction certification, my time for other types of reading is more limited. Still I managed to get through a few titles to finish up 2018. Hope you enjoy the micro reviews + publisher blurbs! Let me know if you add anything from this list to your book pile!

October work date with Brian at  Book Trader Cafe  in New Haven

October work date with Brian at Book Trader Cafe in New Haven

You can see my 2018 reading list here. | You can see all my reading lists since 2006 here.

One other note: Last year I began using Amazon affiliate links as a way to bring in some pocket change from the books I share on the blog. I was challenged by an independent bookseller to reconsider this strategy as Amazon has a poor reputation in its dealings with authors and other members of the book industry. I want to champion local business and humane working relationships and so I've included an IndieBound link that will direct you to purchase any of the following books from an independent bookseller near you. I've also included the order link for one of my new favorite booksellers, Hearts and Minds Books.  Using the link I've provided you can order any book through heartsandmindsbooks.com, a full service, independent bookstore and receive prompt and personal service. They even offer the option to receive the order with an invoice and a return envelope so you can send them a check! Brian and I've been delighted with the generous attention we've received from owners Byron and Beth Borger. We feel like we've made new friends! (I also highly recommend subscribing to Byron's passionately instructive and prolific Booknotes posts.)


Novels

37. Virgil Wander
By Leif Enger (Grove House, 2018. 352 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

"The first novel in ten years from award-winning, million-copy bestselling author Leif Enger, Virgil Wander is an enchanting and timeless all-American story that follows the inhabitants of a small Midwestern town in their quest to revive its flagging heart.

Midwestern movie house owner Virgil Wander is “cruising along at medium altitude” when his car flies off the road into icy Lake Superior. Virgil survives but his language and memory are altered and he emerges into a world no longer familiar to him. Awakening in this new life, Virgil begins to piece together his personal history and the lore of his broken town, with the help of a cast of affable and curious locals―from Rune, a twinkling, pipe-smoking, kite-flying stranger investigating the mystery of his disappeared son; to Nadine, the reserved, enchanting wife of the vanished man, to Tom, a journalist and Virgil’s oldest friend; and various members of the Pea family who must confront tragedies of their own. Into this community returns a shimmering prodigal son who may hold the key to reviving their town.

With intelligent humor and captivating whimsy, Leif Enger conjures a remarkable portrait of a region and its residents, who, for reasons of choice or circumstance, never made it out of their defunct industrial district. Carried aloft by quotidian pleasures including movies, fishing, necking in parked cars, playing baseball and falling in love, Virgil Wander is a swift, full journey into the heart and heartache of an often overlooked American Upper Midwest by a “formidably gifted” (Chicago Tribune) master storyteller."

Micro Review:

After a decade of no new work, I was eager to read anything Leif Enger’s written. I was delighted that it was this book. I’m not sure anything will ever match my love for Enger’s Peace Like A River, but Virgil Wander delivered a cast of characters I enjoyed meeting in a setting I loved. A few times I got caught imagining everyone as if they were the cast of The Majestic (starring Jim Carrey) because there are a couple of uncanny similarities in the plot. By the end of the story, though, I was fully living the kite-flying, beachcombing life on the shore of Lake Superior.


Apostles Reads Selections

38. The Complete Stories (FSG Classics)
By Flannery O’Connor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First edition, 1971. 576 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

“The publication of this extraordinary volume firmly established Flannery O'Connor's monumental contribution to American fiction. There are thirty-one stories here in all, including twelve that do not appear in the only two story collections O'Connor put together in her short lifetime--Everything That Rises Must Converge and A Good Man Is Hard to Find.

O'Connor published her first story, "The Geranium," in 1946, while she was working on her master's degree at the University of Iowa. Arranged chronologically, this collection shows that her last story, "Judgement Day"--sent to her publisher shortly before her death―is a brilliantly rewritten and transfigured version of "The Geranium." Taken together, these stories reveal a lively, penetrating talent that has given us some of the most powerful and disturbing fiction of the twentieth century. Also included is an introduction by O'Connor's longtime editor and friend, Robert Giroux.

Micro Review:

My loyalty to Ms. O’Connor has faltered a few times in the current revelations of white supremacy stubbornly cloistered in the Church. After assigning our church’s reading group read this title for Ordinary Time, Brian and I started re-reading the stories out loud to each other. The impact of hearing our own voices repeating the “N” word which takes up so much word count in Flannery O’Connor’s short stories felt something like hearing myself shout “Crucify Him!” in the public recitation of the Passion accounts during Holy Week each year. In that light, we found value in placing ourselves in the role of the shameless racism of so many of O’Connor’s characters. After all, “we and our fathers have sinned” and there’s a backwards kind of kindness in the relentless monstrosity of these characters and stories. After reading her work yet again, I still see the brilliance in her refusal to paint even a single sentence with sentimentality and pray for eyes to see within my own self the seeds of self-righteous monstrosity steering the truest so many antagonists written in her stories.

39. A Christmas Carol
By Charles Dickens, Narrated by Tim Curry (Released, 2010. 3 hours, 31 minutes)

Amazon Audible | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

“This version of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, masterfully narrated by Tim Curry, was available for a limited time last year, and now it's back. This one-of-a-kind performance puts a unique spin on a treasured classic, and served as the inspiration for the exciting new line of Audible Signature Classics, including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with Elijah Wood, and Heart of Darkness with Kenneth Branagh. Tim Curry performs this timeless holiday story in a deliciously dark tone, returning it to its Dickensian roots with a vivid imagining of Victorian London and just the right touch of outrageous fun.

A Christmas Carol has constantly been in print since its original publication in 1849, and has been adapted for stage, television, film, and opera. It has often been credited with returning the jovial and festive atmosphere to the holiday season in Britain and North America, following the somber period that emerged during the Industrial Revolution.

The story opens on a bleak and cold Christmas Eve as Ebenezer Scrooge is closing up his office for the day. As the story progresses and Christmas morning approaches, Scrooge encounters the unforgettable characters that make this story a classic: Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and, of course, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come.”

Micro Review:

This was the Advent and Christmastide selection for Apostles Reads.

I have a book confession. I have never read a single one of Dickens' novels, including the classic-of-all-Christmas classics, A Christmas Carol. What better time to repent of my reading transgressions than the start of our third year reading together?

Further confession: Even though I've never read the actual book, I own several copies. I also watch several versions of the various film every December (while I'm on a confession roll, Kermit the Frog is my favorite Bob Cractchit!)

Brian and I “read” this title via audiobook on our drive to celebrate Christmas in Texas with our kids. We loved Tim Curry as our narrator! Highly recommend reading, listening, and watching this story as long as we live with Christmases Yet To Come.


Essays & Non-Fiction

40. Writings From The New Yorker, 1927 - 1976
By E. B. White (Harper Perennial; Reissue edition, 2006. 256 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

“A delightful, witty, spirited collection of short pieces and essays by the inimitable E. B. White.”

Micro Review: E. B. White is one of my all-time favorites for both Charlotte’s Web and Trumpet of the Swan. I love his voice in his non-fiction as well. This collection of essays covers an unforgettable era in America’s history and while Mr. White often chooses a slight rose-colored hue in his perspective on the world, the overall affect of decades of his column is one of goodness and beauty. 

 

41. The Writing Life
By Ellen Gilchrist (University Press of Mississippi, 2005. 226 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

“Celebrated author Ellen Gilchrist has played many roles-writer and speaker, wife and lover, mother and grandmother. But she never tackled the role of teacher.

Offered the opportunity to teach creative writing at the University of Arkansas, she took up the challenge and ventured into unknown territory. In the process of teaching more than two hundred students since her first class in 2000, she has found inspiration in their lives and ambitions and in the challenge of conveying to them the lessons she has learned from living and writing.

The Writing Life brings together fifty essays and vignettes centered on the transforming magic of literature and the teaching and writing of it. A portion of the collection discusses the delicate balance between an artistic life and family commitments, especially the daily pressures and frequent compromises faced by a young mother. Gilchrist next focuses on the process of writing itself with essays ranging from "How I Wrote a Book of Short Stories in Three Months" to "Why Is Rewriting so Hard?"

Several essays discuss her appreciation of other writers, from Shakespeare to Larry McMurtry, and the lessons she learned from them. Eudora Welty made an indelible impact on Gilchrist's work. When Gilchrist takes on the task of teaching, her essays reveal an enriched understanding of the role writing plays in any life devoted to the craft. Humorous and insightful, she assesses her own abilities as an instructor and confronts the challenge of inspiring students to attain the discipline and courage to pursue the sullen art. Some of these pieces have been previously published in magazines, but most are unpublished and all appear here in book form for the first time.”

Micro Review: Simple, enjoyable essays on the life of a woman and a writer. I especially appreciated Ms. Gilchrist’s insights to what it means to look back on her life as a someone who was and still is both a mother and a writer.


Poetry

42. Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year
By Malcolm Guite (Canterbury Press Norwich, 2012. 108 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

“Poetry has always been a central element of Christian spirituality and is increasingly used in worship, in pastoral services and guided meditation. In Sounding the Seasons, Cambridge poet, priest and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite transforms seventy lectionary readings into lucid, inspiring poems, for use in regular worship, seasonal services, meditative reading or on retreat.

Already widely recognised, Malcolm's writing has been acclaimed by Rowan Williams and Luci Shaw, two leading contemporary religious poets. Seven Advent poems from this collection will appear in the next edition of Penguin's (US) Best Spiritual Writing edited by Philip Zaleski, alongside the work of writers such as Seamus Heaney and Annie Dillard.

A section of practical help and advice for using poetry creatively and effectively in worship is also included.

Micro Review: I refer to Malcolm Guite’s sonnets as closely as I do to any other theologian I read and was delighted to introduce his work to our church’s reading group last year. In the collection Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, Guite turns 70 lectionary readings into beautiful, poignant spiritual reflections. We read through this book as a companion to all our reading during 2018, reading several aloud each time we gathered. As a bonus, we grew in our understanding and appreciation for the sonnet as a classic poetic form.


Prayer / Spirituality / Spiritual Direction / Bible Study

43. Go In Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions
By Julia Gatta & Martin L. Smith (Morehouse Publishing, 2012. 144 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

“Although the sacramental Rite of Reconciliation is included in many Anglican prayer books, nothing has been written expressly Anglicans since the 1980s that focuses on the pastoral skills required for this ministry.  This book combines and passes on the teaching, coaching, skill development, and accumulated pastoral wisdom that has not been widely accessible or well integrated into clergy training.

Realistic transcripts and "verbatims" of sample confessions and counseling sessions involving a wide range of people makes this a unique ministry resource for most seminaries and theological colleges, plus clergy in general-including Lutheran pastors who use the rite of "Individual Confession and Absolution" in the Lutheran Book of Worship.”

Micro Review: I read Go In Peace as part of my spiritual direction certification requirements. It will end up being in the top five of my favorites from the course. While various denominations practice giving and receiving confession in community in a variety of ways, Gatta and Smith provide theological insight and encouragement for all of us to embrace this means of grace for wholeness and intimacy with God, each other, and ourselves. If you care about participating in a healthy church, I recommend this book.

44. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
By Parker J. Palmer (Jossey-Bass, 1999. 128 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

“With wisdom, compassion, and gentle humor, Parker J. Palmer invites us to listen to the inner teacher and follow its leadings toward a sense of meaning and purpose. Telling stories from his own life and the lives of others who have made a difference, he shares insights gained from darkness and depression as well as fulfillment and joy, illuminating a pathway toward vocation for all who seek the true calling of their lives.”

Micro Review: I’d heard so often from people who enjoyed this book and finally read it during my Ordinary Time blog series, Work Stories. I inhaled the brief, but profound book. I need to buy my own copy since I’d borrowed the one I read from the library and couldn’t underline or bookmark anything. Highly recomend.

 

45. The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love (Apprentice Series)
By James Bryan Smith (IVP Books, 2010. 240 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

“In this third book in the Apprentice Series, James Bryan Smith helps us know how to live in relationship with others as apprentices of Jesus. "Apprentices of Jesus are not part-time do-gooders," he writes. "They live in continuous contact with the kingdom of God, and are constantly men and women in whom Christ dwells. They do not sometimes tell the truth, sometimes live sacrificially or sometimes forgive. There are myriad opportunities for us to impact the world in which we live." Yet many times we've gotten it wrong, tending to emphasize personal faith over social justice or vice versa. In these pages Jim Smith shows us how to bring spiritual formation and community engagement together, and then once again offers spiritual practices that root new, true narratives about God and the world in our souls. His insight and humility as a fellow learner with us will lead us to live in authentic ways as a good and beautiful community of Christ-followers, shining the light of the Spirit into every relationship.”

Micro Review: Our small group at church finished this, the third and final title in James Bryan Smith’s Apprentice series. I’m still impressed not only with the author's substantive, but accessible, theological insight, but also with his gracious tone and impeccable recommendations for spiritual practices to make each theological truth about what it means to live in church community root itself deeply in our hearts. Highly recommend - especially for group reading!

46. Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony In A Complex World
By Richard J. Foster (HarperOne, 2005. 272 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

“A revised and updated edition of the manifesto that shows how simplicity is not merely having less stress and more leisure but an essential spiritual discipline for the health of our soul.”

Micro Review: I borrowed this book from my friend Walter (hope he doesn’t mind I’ve had it so long!). During this cultural conversation about minimalism, I recommend reading Foster’s classic word on the subject guide your theology and practices.

 

47. The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self
By M. Robert Mulholland Jr. (IVP Books, 2016. 188 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

“As you journey deeper in the Christian pilgrimage, you come to realize that the Christian life is more than merely replicating particular spiritual disciplines or practices. You begin to understand that at the core of Christian faith is the transformation of your very identity. M. Robert Mulholland Jr. exposes the false selves that you may be tempted to hide behind and helps you to instead discover the true self that comes from being hidden with Christ in God. If the goal of the Christian journey is Christlikeness, then you must reckon with the unhealthy ways that you root your sense of being in things other than God. Along the way, you will discover a growing sense of intimacy and abandonment to God. Not only will you encounter the joy of discovering your own self, you will also find a greater love for others and compassion for the world. The expanded edition includes a study guide for individual reflection or group discussion.”

Micro Review: Of the dozens of titles I’ve been assigned to read for my spiritual direction certification, The Deeper Journey is my favorite by a large margin. Those of you who know us, know that Brian and I have relentlessly pursued freedom and healing to live from our truest selves - that part of us imagined and designed by our Creator God. We’ve learned from many good teachers on the subject, but Mulholland seems to synthesize the essence of the theology of our human identity redeemed by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. He writes with depth but not dryness, hope for all but not patronizing of the reader’s experience, and truth but not theological imprecision. Read this book.

48. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality
By Belden C. Lane (Oxford University Press, 2007. 296 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

“In the tradition of Kathleen Norris, Terry Tempest Williams, and Thomas Merton, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes explores the impulse that has drawn seekers into the wilderness for centuries and offers eloquent testimony to the healing power of mountain silence and desert indifference.

Interweaving a memoir of his mother's long struggle with Alzheimer's and cancer, meditations on his own wilderness experience, and illuminating commentary on the Christian via negativa--a mystical tradition that seeks God in the silence beyond language--Lane rejects the easy affirmations of pop spirituality for the harsher but more profound truths that wilderness can teach us. "There is an unaccountable solace that fierce landscapes offer to the soul. They heal, as well as mirror, the brokeness we find within." It is this apparent paradox that lies at the heart of this remarkable book: that inhuman landscapes should be the source of spiritual comfort. Lane shows that the very indifference of the wilderness can release us from the demands of the endlessly anxious ego, teach us to ignore the inessential in our own lives, and enable us to transcend the "false self" that is ever-obsessed with managing impressions. Drawing upon the wisdom of St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhardt, Simone Weil, Edward Abbey, and many other Christian and non-Christian writers, Lane also demonstrates how those of us cut off from the wilderness might "make some desert" in our lives.

Written with vivid intelligence, narrative ease, and a gracefulness that is itself a comfort, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes gives us not only a description but a "performance" of an ancient and increasingly relevant spiritual tradition”

Micro Review: In The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, author Belden C. Lane creates a physical setting of desert for the spiritual work that takes place when we seek a holy detachment from all of the distractions created by external circumstances of our everyday life. Lane repeatedly warns against the temptation to romanticize the monastic work done in silence and solitude. Referring to the desert as a “geography of abandonment”, sets the stage as the place “where one confronts one’s inevitable loss of control, the inadequacy of language, the spectre of one’s own demise.” Lane posits that only in the poverty that comes with an exchange of self-determination for a holy indifference can the seeker can find the “naked intent” of prayer. In that prayer, we know our truest desire only as we release it to the control of a God we may or may not be able to see or hear. The end result of this kind of surrender, according to Lane, is the prized fruit of love. I especially enjoyed this book since the author weaves throughout his experience visiting the Monastery of Christ in the Desert which Brian and I visited during our road trip to New Mexico back in our own desert season of 2015.


Christmas Reading

49. A Child’s Christmas In Wales
By Dylan Thomas (48 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

“This nostalgic recollection of Christmas past by celebrated Welsh poet Dylan Thomas evokes the beauty and tradition of the season at every turn: the warmth of a family gathering; the loveliness of a mistletoe-decked home; the predictability of cats by the fire; the mischief and fun of children left to their own devices; and the sheer delight of gifts--be they Useful or Useless. 

Readers will cherish this beautiful hardcover edition of the classic A Child's Christmas in Wales complete with gold-foil stars, a debossed, glossy front picture, and sparkling snowflakes. Once inside, readers are rewarded with stunning, midnight-blue endpapers sprinkled with a flurry of more snowflakes. This book is a must-have gift for the season. 

Brilliantly illustrated by Caldecott medalist Trina Schart Hyman with a combination of more than 40 full-color and sepia-toned images, this beautiful edition of Thomas's beloved classic will enchant readers of all ages, year after year.”

Micro Review: Always and forever a must-read for me at Christmastime. If you visit me during Christmas, I’ll probably force you to listen to me read it out loud. Be warned.

50. The Thirteen Days of Christmas
By Jenny Overton (48 pages)

Amazon | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

“This is the heart-warming story of how three of the Kitson children help the wealthy merchant woo their older sister Annaple with a different gift for each of the twelve days of Christmas - with hilarious results! But as the house groans at the seams with partridges, calling birds, swans,maids-a-milking, etc., will Annaple really succumb to the romance of it all, or will she just want the house returned to its normal, tidy state!”

Micro Review: A sweet, if silly, tale of the imagined origins of that now ubiquitous carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. Suspend disbelief and enjoy the zealous courtship of the “true love” for a rather distracted, disinterested young woman. The best treat for the reader is the glimpse into 16th-century (?) England Christmas traditions, carols, and village life.


Previews

51. Mandela and the General
By John Carlin, Illustrated by Oriol Malet (Plough Publishing, 2018. 112 pages)

Amazon | Plough Publishing | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

“Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid hero and first leader of the new South Africa, is an international symbol of the power of a popular movement to fight structural racism. But that nonviolent struggle for equality and justice very nearly spiraled into an all-out race war that would have only ended in “the peace of graveyards.”

As the first post-apartheid elections approach in 1994, with blacks poised to take power, white South Africans fear reprisal. White nationalist militias claiming 50,000 well-armed former soldiers stand ready to fight to the death to save their white homeland. They need someone who can lead and unite them. That man was former general Constand Viljoen.

Mandela knows that he can’t avert a bloodbath on his own. He will have to count on his arch-enemy. Throughout those historic months, the two men meet in secret. Can they trust each other? Can they keep their followers and radical fringe elements from acts of violence? The mettle of these two men will determine the future of a nation.

The drama of this contest and the history that pivoted on it comes vividly to life in visual form. Veteran British journalist John Carlin teams up with Catalan artist Oriol Malet to create a historically and artistically rich graphic novel with obvious relevance to today’s polarized politics.”

Micro Review: A graphic novel may be the best format for me to dive into this story that I would otherwise know nothing. Yes, I’m generally aware of Mandela’s legacy and the evils of apartheid, but this story fleshes out in a fuller dimension a few of the historical figures and their opposing movements. Take a chance on the illustrated format and read this book. Then pass it along. We need these stories, and I’m so grateful to Plough Publishing for getting them into our hands.


Go to my reading lists page to see my reading lists from 2018 and previous years.

Here's my Goodreads page. Let's be friends!

Linking up with another good reading resource: Modern Mrs. Darcy's monthly Quick Lit post.

I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!  

What are you reading these days? 

#

p.s. This post includes affiliate links in this post because I'm trying to be a good steward, and when you buy something through one of these links you don't pay more money, but in some magical twist of capitalism we get a little pocket change. Thanks!

7 Literary Books Our Church Read together in 2018 {Apostles Reads}

Our book discussion for Robert Farrar Capon’s  Supper of the Lamb  included a potluck feast of his recipes.

Our book discussion for Robert Farrar Capon’s Supper of the Lamb included a potluck feast of his recipes.

In 2016, when I read the wonderful Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Neighborhoods and Churches Flourish by C. Christopher Smith, I was at the same time preparing to move to a new state and minister within a new church family. Brian and I felt strongly that our role as the new Rector and wife needed to be first as guests in a place that, while new to us, was a community where, within and without Church of the Apostles, Christ's kingdom was alive and active. We wanted to enter with an appropriate curiosity to the stories of life, love, and loss in southwest Connecticut. At the same time, we knew we'd need to cultivate conversations that would help us find kindred spirits. It's this sort of solution that Reading for the Common Good helped me imagine. While reading and discussing a wide range of excellent books wasn't the only way I began to build relationships in Fairfield County, it certainly was one of the most delightful.

My husband gets a lot of credit for trusting my idea (as he's done so many times in the last 28 years). From the broad idea for churches to read good books together generated in Reading for the Common Good, I customized the details to fit our needs and context. For one thing, we've added a liturgical slant - reading one book per liturgical season informed by the broad themes of each season. Our very first book to read together for Advent 2016, we read Shusaku Endo's Silence (which prompted a somewhat unintentional group initiation!) and then swung to the verbose and jubilant essays and poems of G. K. Chesterton for Christmastide. That's a kind of intellectual athleticism (and maybe gracious response to the new Rector's wife) only the most open-minded readers embrace.

Another bonus has been getting to know each other better. On more than one occasion I've been astonished to hear the bits and pieces of life stories that intersect with our book themes - like the lovely woman who mentioned in a sort of "oh by the way" comment during last Lent’s discussion of MLK's Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? that she'd worked for the LBJ administration and witnessed first-hand the Poor People's March on Washington the same year as the assassination of Dr. King; another shared privately that she'd protested with the pacifist priest Daniel Berrigan. I'll admit to a bit of jaw-dropping since both of those scenarios are a long way from the conservative church circles in an area that includes some of the nation's top-earning zip codes

I'm happy to look back on our second year reading together and see that the Apostles Reads group has been up to the challenge. From the true and devastating accounts of one lawyer’s campaign to free the wrongfully imprisoned in Just Mercy to the bittersweet fictional tale of a lonely college rad roaming the streets of Chicago with a basketball and a fantastical pet dog in Chicago to the relentlessly shocking characters in Flannery O’Connor’s deep South and more, this little reading community has responded to each title with grace, humility, empathy, and intellectual curiosity. I’m honored to be among them.

In case you’re curious, here’s the general guidelines we follow in selecting the book titles:

  • Many of our titles will be selected from what's widely understood as classic books or authors, whether that's in a technical or colloquial sense.

  • Many of our titles will be selected from books and authors that have been awarded for their literary merit within the larger publishing arena.

  • While we love new books and encourage each other to be aware of good books that have been newly released, for the sake of growing in our understanding of the context in which we live, worship, and work we'll veer toward older, established works rather than newer releases.

  • All of our books will acknowledge the reality of common grace, most will carry implicit theological themes, a couple will be based on explicit theological themes.

  • We value all genres of literature and will work toward including a noticeable variety of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, short story, biography, and essays each year.

  • We value reading outside of our tradition as a form of hospitality toward people, places, and customs different than our own experience.

  • We value literacy for all ages and will, once or twice a year, read something that is suitable for all ages.

I thought you might enjoy seeing the titles we chose and a few notes from our discussions. I'd also love to hear any suggestions you have for our future reading.

Reader’s theatre during our family discussion of  The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Reader’s theatre during our family discussion of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever


All year - Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year by Malcolm Guite

I was excited to introduce our group to the work of one my favorite contemporary, liturgical poets, Malcolm Guite. In the collection Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, he turns 70 lectionary readings into beautiful, poignant spiritual reflections. We read through this book as a companion to all our reading during 2018, reading several aloud each time we gathered. As a bonus, we grew in our understanding and appreciation for the sonnet as a classic poetic form.

 

Advent & Christmastide - The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

For Advent and Christmastide, I chose a timeless favorite from my family: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. To judge the book by the cover only, one might think this title is for children alone. Don’t let this little 128-page treasure fool you. Like any well-told story, the story of a congregation making space for "the worst kids in the world" to join their annual Christmas pageant is powerful in its child-like simplicity. And such is the kingdom of Heaven, yes?

Our get-together was delightful. We ranged from preschooler to senior citizen, and pulled off our own little improv/reader’s theater of one of the scenes as well as some pretty great rounds of Pictionary using key words and phrases from Malcolm Guite’s sonnets. As always, the kids’ literary comprehension blew us away.

This is the rare kind of book that both adults and children find both hilarious and heartwarming. Recommended reading for everyone, every year!

 

Epiphany - Chicago: A Novel by Brian Doyle

I read this novel for the first time in 2017 after hearing that the Catholic author had died a premature death to brain cancer. For some reason, I hadn't heard of him before then and spent the next several months trying to rectify that error. The novel Chicago is sweet, imaginative, funny, and full of grace. During Epiphany we celebrate the Christ who came to live and work among us, or as in Eugene Peterson's paraphrase, “moved into the neighborhood”.

Also, I'm going to tell you right now: Edward is one of my favorite book characters of all time, and he's encouraged me to like our dog Leo a lot more than I actually do.

 

Lent - Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

We prayerfully began our next book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson during Lent. I first began hearing about this book a couple of years ago, and gave it to my daughter-in-law who was, at the time, studying criminal psychology and recidivism at her university. On her recommendation, I added the book to my to-read list but it was the encouragement of one of our group members that finally got me to begin reading this difficult subject.

After we read Dr. King's book together our first Lent (2017), Walter Wittwer handed me a book and said, "You should read this." He'd handed me his own underlined copy of Just Mercy, and because I respect his advice and am grateful for his experience ministering within the prison system, I finally started reading.  I was grateful to be able to read the difficult, but beautiful stories along with a community of friends.

 

Eastertide -The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert Farrar Capon

The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert Farrar Capon may be my all-time favorite food-related book. Certainly, it's my favorite food/theology book, as should be any reflection that turns chopping an ordinary onion into an act of worship. 

During the Great Fifty Days of Eastertide, we celebrate all the foretastes of the eternal kingdom that grace our lives right now. Nothing points us more to the jubilee of that day than the act of feasting and no one argues more passionately for that act than Capon. We enjoyed the discussion around a potluck feast of our own with recipes made from the book. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

 

Pentecost - Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good by Amy L. Sherman

Brian selected Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good by Amy L. Sherman. During Pentecost we celebrate the power of the Holy Spirit to equip each one of us to live out the gospel. One key way we get to do this is through our work, and this book helps us explore the intersection of faith and work. 

 

Ordinary Time - The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor

It took me two years to have the courage to assign Flannery O'Connor - which is a pretty big statement since we started our group with the novel Silence! It helped that a few of our group mentioned having already read some of O’Connor’s work and that they were looking forward to reading more.

I first read O'Connor's fiction after seeing her name mentioned over and over again by artists and theologians whose work I admired. I was not prepared for what I read, but I knew I wanted to better understand the perspective on faith that colors Flannery O'Connor's short stories with equal parts biting wit, naked observation of the depravity of humans, and tiny - sometimes minuscule - glimpses of a divine grace.

To be honest, I didn't really start appreciating her work until I read some of her non-fiction. I needed to understand a bit more about her own life to better understand what colored her fictional imagination. For this reason, I kept our reading selection somewhat open. I recommended the anthology of her short stories, The Complete Stories , so that group members could pick and choose the titles that most catch their attention. I also recommended The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor or Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose for those who wanted to supplement the short stories with some of O’Connor’s non-fiction.

Here's a brief review I shared after reading The Habit of Being that unpacks a bit more the tension of paradigm shifting I experienced from Flannery O'Connor's writing. 

Our Autumn read

Our Autumn read

Here's the list of books we've read so far this liturgical year, and the ones we're (tentatively) planning to read for 2019.

Advent and Christmastide- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Epiphany - Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle

Lent - Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard (or this delightful children’s illustrated version!)

Eastertide - The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis

Pentecost - One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race and Love by John Perkins

Ordinary Time (summer) - a Dostoyevsky title to be determined

Ordinary Time (autumn) - Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn

Advent - Joshua: A Parable for Today by Joseph F. Girzone

Christmastide: “Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot


Any suggestions? Also, if you could invite your church to join you in reading one book for this year (with the above criteria), what would YOU choose?

p.s. This post contains affiliate links because I'm trying to be a good steward, and when you buy something through one of these links you don't pay more money, but in some magical twist of capitalism we get a little pocket change. Thanks!

8 books our church read together last year {Apostles Reads}

Previewing potential titles for the 2017-2018 reading year

Previewing potential titles for the 2017-2018 reading year

In 2016, when I read the wonderful Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Neighborhoods and Churches Flourish by C. Christopher Smith, I was at the same time preparing to move to a new state and minister within a new church family. Brian and I felt strongly that our role as the new Rector and wife needed to be first as guests in a place that, while new to us, was a community where, within and without Church of the Apostles, Christ's kingdom was alive and active. We wanted to enter with an appropriate curiosity to the stories of life, love, and loss in southwest Connecticut. At the same time, we knew we'd need to cultivate conversations that would help us find kindred spirits. It's this sort of solution that Reading for the Common Good helped me imagine. While reading and discussing a wide range of excellent books wasn't the only way I began to build relationships in Fairfield County, it certainly was one of the most delightful.

My husband gets a lot of credit for trusting my idea (as he's done so many times in the last 27 years). From the broad idea for churches to read good books together generated in Reading for the Common Good, I customized the details to fit our needs and context. For one thing, we've added a liturgical slant - reading one book per liturgical season informed by the broad themes of each season. For Advent (our first book), we read Shusaku Endo's Silence (which prompted a somewhat unintentional group initiation!) and then swung to the verbose and jubilant essays and poems of G. K. Chesterton for Christmastide. That's a kind of intellectual athleticism (and maybe gracious response to the new Rector's wife) only the most open-minded readers embrace.

Another bonus has been getting to know each other better. On more than one occasion I've been astonished to hear the bits and pieces of life stories that intersect with our book themes - like the lovely woman who mentioned in a sort of "oh by the way" comment during our discussion of MLK's Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? that she'd worked for the LBJ administration and witnessed first-hand the Poor People's March on Washington the same year as the assassination of Dr. King; another shared privately that she'd protested with the pacifist priest Daniel Berrigan. I'll admit to a bit of jaw-dropping since both of those scenarios are a long way from the conservative church circles in an area that includes some of the nation's top-earning zip codes

I'm happy to look back on our first year reading together and see that the Apostles Reads group has been up to the challenge. They have responded to each title - from the martyrs and apostates in Endo's 17th-century Japan to the four lonely children rummaging through a wardrobe into Narnia -  with grace, humility, empathy, and intellectual curiosity.

I thought you might enjoy seeing the titles we chose and a few notes from our discussions. I'd also love to hear any suggestions you have for our future reading!

looking up all the names of the various creatures in Narnia

looking up all the names of the various creatures in Narnia


Advent - Silence by Shusaku Endo

When we began a reading group for our church, I knew immediately that I wanted us to start with Silence.  It's the kind of book that fosters deep wrestling with themes of personal faith, religious institutions, Christian mission, and martyrdom.  In addition, I knew the movie would be released in area theaters around January and I wanted some friends to join me!  While it's possible to see the movie without reading the book, I didn't want anyone to miss the opportunity to read Endo's exquisite imagining of characters within a historically documented era of his home country. Our group conversation went better than I'd hoped, and I was honored by the intentionality each person approached our first book.  Some experienced the book in a positive way, and at least one person called it "devastating".  We fell out in different places on what we felt our choice would be should we ever be asked, on pain of torture, to deny our faith.  In this time of increasing persecution against Christians across the globe, we felt closer to the idea than just a story from 17th century Japan.  

This is a book I will read again and again because it requires both theological precision and deepening empathy.  It's a beautiful sort of devastation.

Christmastide - Essays & Poems from The Spirit of Christmas by  G.K. Chesterton

 We read a selection of 12 Christmas poems and essays by British theologian, G.K. Chesterton. The readings were chosen from the anthology, The Spirit of Christmas, which is unfortunately out of print, but I wrote each of our selections on my blog throughout the twelve days of Christmas. You can read them here.

We chose this selection because there's no one who's written more prolifically about the practice of Christian celebration and feasting at Christmastime than the witty, sharp (and, occasionally, ornery!) G.K. Chesterton. You can read a brief excerpt from a review of The Spirit of Christmas here.

Epiphany - Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A year before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote this final book. The title question- Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? - read like a prophetic call for prayer in 2017. In Epiphany, we reflect on Christ as the Light for the whole world. During our discussion we pondered where the Light is dwelling among our nation as we face many of the same social anxiety and conflicts as when this book was written.

We were glad to welcome a couple from outside of our church community who wanted to participate in a conversation about Dr. King's writing. Their perspective added an important layer of insight, concerns, and questions that wouldn't have been otherwise represented. I was grateful to our group for their openness and hospitality, and hope we can encourage the couple (and others) to return at some point.

Lent - Gilead: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead is one of my all-time favorite novels, written by one of my favorite authors. I chose this title for our Lenten reading because the narrator, Reverend John Ames, is reflecting throughout the novel on his advancing years, and considering what it will mean to not be around when his young son comes into manhood. This is the sort of reflection Lent calls us to consider with the blessing we receive with ashes:  "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Reverend Ames is also considering the legacy of his parents and grandparents in a way I find especially meaningful. 

Another reason Gilead fits the themes of Lent is because, though the book wades into deep themes of loss and illness, the story is set in the midst of beautiful, comforting relationships which provide a nice balance to the books we'd read together up to this point.

EastertideThe Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Chronicles of Narnia) by C.S. Lewis

We made Apostles Reads a family affair for Eastertide! The Chronicles of Narnia are meaningful on many levels for all ages and faith backgrounds, but there is no meaning more deeply embedded in the tale than the Gospel of Christ's resurrection and reign. We encouraged adults in our congregation to read along with a child if possible. 

What a rewarding experience! Here are some highlights:

  • We gave away paperback copies of the book to every Easter Sunday visitor which included a couple of people to whom English was a second language. They seemed especially grateful to own a copy of this classic to share with their family.

  • One of the members of our congregation, now in his nineties, grew up in Britain during WWII, and was evacuated from the city to live with strangers just like the Pevensie children. Brian and I visited him to hear his stories over the pot of tea he properly brewed for us. He shared his amazing experiences, how frightened he was as a little boy during that time, and how God used that anxiety to draw him closer to a faith in Jesus. He also told us about his university years at Oxford (when his group of friends included J.I. Packer!), and his regret at not taking any courses taught by C.S. Lewis like some of his friends had.

  • Our book discussion at the end of Eastertide was so much fun! We welcomed the children to discuss along with us, and were delighted by their participation. We also crafted paper crowns to give to another person in the group. At the end of our time we held a ceremony to crown each other with the paper hats and a name we'd chosen for them. A dear fellow reader crowned me as "Tamara the Radiant". Oh my goodness, I loved hearing that!

Pentecost - Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three by Gordon T. Smith

We've deemed the season of Pentecost, the season we celebrate the birth of the Church, as "Rector's Choice". Brian selected Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three by Gordon T. Smith. This was an accessible, brief book that fostered some great conversations about worship and ministry. June in the northeast is a tricky month to get together for a book discussion so we've decided the next time around to use the entire summer for the Pentecost book selection.

Ordinary Time (summer) - A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979 - 1997 by Wendell Berry

One of the ways we mark the season of Ordinary Time is to respond to our Creator's invitation to join Him in Sabbath rest. Because of the finished work of Christ which we follow throughout the liturgical year - from the Incarnation to the Resurrection to the Ascension - we can gladly and boldly enter into God's gift of Sabbath rest. We can rest because Christ completed all the Father gave Him to do and finished his work. In Ordinary Time we hope to live out a Christlike confidence that is marked by a quiet, Spirit-infused strength found in that rest.

For the summer, I invited our group to approach the subject of Sabbath rest "sideways" through the language of poetry as written by one of my all-time favorite authors, Wendell Berry.

My vision was that, whether on a vacation of several days or several hours, we would each carry along Berry's poems as a companion. As a practice of rest, I recommended reading the book one poem at a time. My hope was that by doing this we would allow the earthy images and language in Mr. Berry's poems to gently season our times of restful reflection. I also made the bold suggestion to carry along a journal and pen with the hope that Berry's words would inspire some poems of our own!  And you know what? We discovered we have poets among us. Grace upon grace...

Here's an excellent review one of our Apostles Reads group members, Walter Wittwer, wrote: A Timbered Choir.

Ordinary Time (autumn) - Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

For our last book before Advent, I selected a title I'd read in 2011: Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. I described it then as "so timely". Now, in 2017, I would actually describe it as prescient. 

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre believes that we as a culture, generally, and as a faith community, specifically, have not stewarded well the gift of language. After making her case that the Word cares about words, she shares twelve thoughtful strategies to steward language: Love Words, Tell the Truth, Don't Tolerate Lies, Read Well, Stay in Conversation, Share Stories, Love the Long Sentence, Practice Poetry, Attend to Translation, Play, Pray, and Cherish Silence.

I felt like, in addition to the ways we communicate in our everyday lives at work, home, and in ministry, this book fostered meaningful reflection as we completed our first year of reading together. Our group gave mixed reviews on the author's point of view, but all of us felt encouraged and refreshed in our enjoyment and stewardship of the resource of language.

 

Our Narnia book party

Our Narnia book party

Brian reading from Berry's "a Timbered Choir" during a summer hike up Kent Falls in Kent, CT

Brian reading from Berry's "a Timbered Choir" during a summer hike up Kent Falls in Kent, CT

Tea & Stories with our friend Peter who's life was influenced deeply by C. S. Lewis and the Pevensie children

Tea & Stories with our friend Peter who's life was influenced deeply by C. S. Lewis and the Pevensie children

Here's the list of books we've read so far this liturgical year, and the ones we're (tentatively) planning to read in the coming months.

Advent - The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

Christmastide - Advent and Christmastide sonnets from Sounding the Seasons by Malcolm Guite (We'll actually be reading the corresponding sonnets for each season through the rest of 2018.)

Epiphany - Chicago by Brian Doyle

Lent - Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Eastertide - The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert Farrar Capon

Pentecost - (Rector's Choice)  Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good by Amy L. Sherman

Ordinary Time (autumn) - The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor

Advent - A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Values For Our Book Selections:

  • Many of our titles will be selected from what's widely understood as classic books or authors, whether that's in a technical or colloquial sense.

  • Many of our titles will be selected from books and authors that have been awarded for their literary merit within the larger publishing arena.

  • While we love new books and encourage each other to be aware of good books that have been newly released, for the sake of growing in our understanding of the context in which we live, worship, and work we'll veer toward older, established works rather than newer releases.

  • All of our books will acknowledge the reality of common grace, most will carry implicit theological themes, a couple will be based on explicit theological themes.

  • We value all genres of literature and will work toward including a noticeable variety of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, short story, biography, and essays each year.

  • We value reading outside of our tradition as a form of hospitality toward people, places, and customs different than our own experience.

  • We value literacy for all ages and will, once or twice a year, read something that is suitable for all ages.


Any suggestions? Also, if you could invite your church to join you in reading one book for this year(with the above criteria), what would YOU choose?

p.s. This post contains affiliate links because I'm trying to be a good steward, and when you buy something through one of these links you don't pay more money, but in some magical twist of capitalism we get a little pocket change. Thanks!

An ERB Book Review: "The Way of Letting Go" by Wilma Derksen

I had the privilege of writing a review at Englewood Review of Books this month. ERB is one of my all-time favorite book sources, and I highly recommend signing up for their free email digest. You'll hear about books that may or may not be showcased in the mainstream "Christian market" book sites with reviews from people you may or may not know from the mainstream publications (people like me, for instance!)  As an added bonus, when you subscribe to their email digest you'll receive a free pdf of the excellent resource 101 Transformative Books for Churches to Read and Discuss.


The Way of Letting Go: One Woman's Walk Toward Forgiveness by Wilma Derksen (Zondervan, 2017)

 

I collect radical forgiveness stories.

As I continue to come to terms with my own experiences of trauma, I search out forgiveness mentors through stories – real life or mythologized. Through reading a wide array of stories, I’ve discovered what is probably logical: No act of forgiveness happens without, first, an incident of suffering. In this way, I guess you could also say that I collect stories of suffering.

It was this habit that led me to Wilma Derksen’s memoir of trauma and forgiveness, The Way of Letting Go: One Woman’s Walk Toward Forgiveness, released in February. Derksen, now an international speaker on victimization and criminal justice issues, was on November 30, 1984, a mother and struggling journalist. When her 13-year-old daughter, Candace, called to ask for a ride home from school. Derksen was busy with a writing deadline, and asked her daughter to walk home from school instead.  After that phone conversation, she never spoke to her daughter again.

It would take seven weeks for police to discover Candace’s body, bound, tied, and frozen in a shed near their family home. The investigators were able to immediately rule the death a homicide, but would take 22 years to charge Mark Edward Grant with murder. Now, 33 years following Candace’s death, the case is still tied up on appeals in the Canadian court system.

These details, and many more, make the Derksen’s story devastating. The family’s commitment to forgive their daughter’s killer makes their story profound. In the days following the discovery of their daughter’s body, the Derksens were faced with an unexpected question during a televised press conference:

“‘And what about the person who murdered your daughter?’

Cliff, my husband, was the first to answer it. And he said it with a kind of fait-accompli assurance.

‘We forgive.’

I would do the only thing I know how to do; I would let go.” (27)

The Derksens relied on their faith for guidance during that press conference, a faith that would be stretched thin in the following years.  At the time, though, their pledge to forgive captured the imagination of their community in Winnipeg, and then around the world.

“From then on we became known as the couple who had forgiven. In hindsight, I don’t think we had any idea what forgiveness looked like in the face of murder, but our state of mind at the time was such that we knew we had to say no to anger and obsession. We determined to resist anything that would keep us in a state of emotional bondage, both for our sake and the sake of our other two children.”

In many ways, Derksen’s story is also about identity, and the altered identity that accompanies trauma. The author describes a pivotal moment that occurred the night Candace’s body was found. A stranger showed up at her door and introduced himself as the “parent of a murdered child, too.” In this encounter, Derksen realized that her family’s identity would be unalterably linked with trauma. Consequently, Letting Go is the story of Wilma Derksen’s acceptance of her new identity as a victim of trauma, and her response to that identity as a victim who forgives.

The Way of Letting Go follows the Derksens through the next 33 years of learning how to keep their pledge of forgiveness and how to let go of the many barriers to personal healing they’d encounter along the way. “As I traveled across the country and met other people who have experienced the murder of a loved one, I would listen to their stories, and I started to incorporate their issues as well [as my own], distributing them into a list of fifteen issues that we faced. Except they weren’t ordinary issues – these were issues of monstrous proportion…” (32)

Derksen uses a monster metaphor to describe the fifteen most common “emotional landmines” she found in her own experience and that of those she met in her research. Through the rest of the book she dedicates a chapter to each form of emotional response to trauma using her own stories as illustration.

Wilma Derksen’s determination to survive debilitating grief has led her to spend years researching the science of trauma. In the book, though, she chooses to share those findings through the accessible language of anecdote rather than psychological terminology. In a similar way, Derksen chooses to use generic terms in her biblical references, citing speaking experiences among trauma victims in secular environments (including penitentiaries and Muslim nations). These narrative choices makes the book suitable for readers with various reading levels, (non)religious backgrounds, and experiences of trauma. On a personal level, I was grateful for her paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount which provided me with fresh insight sometimes hindered in traditional church language. I was also grateful for the inclusion of endnotes that provided some of the clinical terminology in the back of the book.

The only misstep is the early chapter in which Derksen introduces the fifteen “monsters” of grief as fifteen different movie villains any reader might recognize.  This is an interesting concept and might have been helpful as a summary rather than an introduction to her book. Without the benefit of knowing many details of her own story, I found the list of movie monsters distracting, even trivializing what, I’d already presumed to be horrific, real-life grief. The framework for the rest of the book is far more effective in describing the overwhelming onslaught of grief and suffering that trauma victims face.

Along with personal anecdotes, each chapter includes a paraphrased portion of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and concludes with a simple, personal statement of letting go.  For example, in the chapter titled “Letting Go of My Rage”, Derksen recalls the time soon after Candace’s death she’d confessed to a friend her fantasy of killing ten child murderers to satisfy justice. From there she references the teaching of Jesus (whom Derksen refers to as “the Nazarene”), instructing his disciples that in His economy wanting to kill is as serious as the actual act. She concludes the chapter with a story of visiting an inmate support group for ten men serving life sentences for murder.  In her willingness to listen to their stories (and theirs to hers), she discovers that she “didn’t want to kill them. I understood them and valued very much what they had given” her.  She ends with a summary statement for this act of letting go:  “I had to let go of my rage and redirect my energy into battling for good.”

From the stranger who showed up at her door the night her daughter’s body was found, Wilma Derksen recognized that while she did not have any choice in receiving this new identity as a “mother of a murdered child”, she did have a choice in the way she responded to the grief.  From the blur of their own heartbreak, she and her husband observed a man who had suffered not only the death of his child, but had lost his own life to the abyss of bitterness, rage, and despair. By choosing the difficult, life-giving path of acceptance, surrender and forgiveness, Derksen invites us to consider a Gospel-shaped possibility for us all.


Go to my Book Reviews page to see reviews from 2016 and previous years.

Here's my Goodreads page. Let's be friends!

p.s. This post contains affiliate links because I'm trying to be a good steward. When you buy something through one of these links you don't pay more money, but in some magical twist of capitalism we get a little pocket change. Thanks!