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)

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"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!

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!

What I Read (waaayyy back) in November & December

Saw these lovely fresh releases of some l'engle favorites at a bookstore in November. didn't buy them ... yet.

Saw these lovely fresh releases of some l'engle favorites at a bookstore in November. didn't buy them ... yet.

See what I read in JanuaryFebruary & March/AprilMay/JuneJuly, & August. September & October.

I'm way behind on book updates, so forgive me for cheating with publisher book blurbs and one-sentence micro reviews! I rely on the blog as my reading record so this will be better than nothing! 

40. An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus' Rhythm of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling (IVP Books, 2013. 199 pages)

"The 2014 Christianity Today Book Award of Merit Winner (Spirituality) "I am a recovering speed addict." Beginning with this confession, pastor and spiritual director Alan Fadling goes on to describe his journey out of the fast lane and into the rhythms of Jesus. Following the framework of Jesus' earthly life, Fadling shows how the work of "unhurrying" ourselves is central to our spiritual development in such pivotal areas as resisting temptation, caring for others, praying and making disciples. Here is a book that affirms that we are called to work and to do work. Productivity is not a sin―it is the attitudes behind our work that can be our undoing. So how do we find balance between our sense of calling and the call to rest? An Unhurried Life offers a way."

Micro Review: Ironically, I had to hurry through my reading of this book for a spiritual direction certification assignment (lack of planning on my part) and look forward to reading again the thoughtful, reflective invitation to enter into a life not given to the demands of striving. Highly recommend for individual or group reading!

41. Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom (Paulist Press, 1970. 128 pages)

"Beginning to Pray has established itself as a modern spiritual classic. Hailed by both Catholics and Protestants, it was written by an Orthodox archbishop for people who had never prayed before, and has been read and loved by persons at all levels of spiritual development.

'The realm of God is dangerous,' says the author. 'You must enter into it and not just seek information about it...The day when God is absent, when he is silent - that is the beginning of prayer.'"

Micro review: This is one of the most helpful books on prayer I've ever read, and one I plan to reference again and again. Highly recommend for individual or group reading!

42. Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting by Marva Dawn (Eerdmans, 1989. 217 pages)

"According to Dawn, the phrase “going to church” both reveals and promotes bad theology: it suggests that the church is a static place when in fact the church is the people of God. The regular gathering together of God’s people for worship is important—it enables them to be church in the world—but the act of worship is only a small part of observing the Sabbath.

This refreshing book invites the reader to experience the wholeness and joy that come from observing God’s order for life—a rhythm of working six days and setting apart one day for rest, worship, festivity, and relationships. Dawn develops a four-part pattern for keeping the Sabbath: (1)ceasing—not only from work but also from productivity, anxiety, worry, possessiveness, and so on; (2) resting— of the body as well as the mind, emotions, and spirit—a wholistic rest; (3) embracing—deliberately taking hold of Christian values, of our calling in life, of the wholeness God offers us; (4) feasting—celebrating God and his goodness in individual and corporate worship as well as feasting with beauty, music, food, affection, and social interaction. 

Combining sound biblical theology and research into Jewish traditions with many practical suggestions, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly offers a healthy balance between head and heart: the book shows how theological insights can undergird daily life and practice, and it gives the reader both motivation and methods for enjoying a special holy day. 

Dawn’s work— unpretentiously eloquent, refreshingly personal in tone, and rich with inspiring example—promotes the discipline of Sabbath-keeping not as a legalistic duty but as the way to freedom, delight, and joy. Christians and Jews, pastors and laypeople, individuals and small groups—all will benefit greatly from reading and discussing the book and putting its ideas into practice."

Micro review: The practice of attending church every week as a spiritual, Sabbath-keeping practice needs many champions now, and Dawn is a skilled, conscientious champion if not my favorite author on this particular subject (which feels like sacrilege to admit!) Recommend for individual or group reading.

43. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (Modern Literary Classics, 2002. 335 pages)

"Called a “magnificently crafted story . . . brimming with wisdom” by Howard Frank Mosher in The Washington Post Book World, Crossing to Safety has, since its publication in 1987, established itself as one of the greatest and most cherished American novels of the twentieth century. Tracing the lives, loves, and aspirations of two couples who move between Vermont and Wisconsin, it is a work of quiet majesty, deep compassion, and powerful insight into the alchemy of friendship and marriage."

Micro review: I chose this novel after repeated recommendations from the savvy Modern Mrs. Darcy ("This gorgeous, graceful novel will appeal to fans of Wendell Berry and Marilynne Robinson.") and thoroughly enjoyed being absorbed into the ordinary accounts of an extraordinary friendship that spans forty years, and  that, in many ways, reminded me of some of my own. Recommend for readers of gentle but poignant literary fiction.

44. What the Land Already Knows: Winter's Sacred Days by Phyllis Tickle (Loyala Press, 2003. 128 pages)

via Goodreads: "In her three-book series that spans the liturgical year, renowned author Phyllis Tickle recalls simple stories from life on her family's farm in Lucy, Tennessee. In these spiritually uplifting and nostalgic memoirs, Tickle records the richness of faith in everyday life. What the Land Already Knows celebrates Advent, Christmas, and the Epiphany. Wisdom in the Waiting reflects on Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. The Graces We Remember provides tales from the end of Pentecost to the beginning of Advent." 

Micro review: Picking up where I left off in the Farm In Lucy short stories trilogy, I found this volume a wonderful introduction to the beginning days of winter. Highly recommend for those who enjoy true stories of family/farm/home life with a liturgical slant.

45. The Abundance: A Novel by Amit Majmudar (Picador, 2014. 272 pages)

"When Mala and Ronak learn that their mother has only a few months to live, they are reluctantly pulled back into the Midwestern world of their Indian immigrant parents. In the brief time between diagnosis and deterioration, busy, efficient Mala commits to mastering her mother's slow art of Indian cooking. Perfecting the raita and the rotli, the two begin not only to work together but also to talk, confronting their deepest divisions and failures. But when Ronak hits upon the idea of selling their cooking-as-healing experience as a high-concept memoir, immigrant and native-born must find a way to cross this last divide.

With grace, acuity, and wry compassion, in Abundance, Amit Majmudar has written anew the immigrant experience, the clash of cultures, the conflicts of assimilation, and, most poignant, the tangled ties between generations."

Micro review: I read this enjoyable, satisfying novel after seeing it mentioned in Sarah Arthur's wonderful Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, and especially appreciated the insight into the lives of an immigrant Indian family making sense of their Hindu faith traditions within the context of the United States. Recommend!

46. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson (HarperCollins, 2005. 128 pages)

"Laughs abound in this bestselling Christmas classic by Barbara Robinson! The Best Christmas Pageant Ever follows the outrageous shenanigans of the Herdman siblings, or “the worst kids in the history of the world.” The siblings take over the annual Christmas pageant in a hilarious yet heartwarming tale involving the Three Wise Men, a ham, scared shepherds, and six rowdy kids.

Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie, and Gladys Herdman are an awful bunch. They set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s toolshed, blackmailed Wanda Pierce to get her charm bracelet, and smacked Alice Wendelken across the head. And that’s just the start! When the Herdmans show up at church for the free snacks and suddenly take over the Christmas pageant, the other kids are shocked. It’s obvious that they’re up to no good. But Christmas magic is all around and the Herdmans, who have never heard the Christmas story before, start to reimagine it in their own way.

This year’s pageant is definitely like no other, but maybe that’s exactly what makes it so special."

Micro review: This was my selection for Advent for our church's reading group (Apostles Reads) because it's the rare kind of book that both adults and children find both hilarious and heartwarming. Recommended reading for everyone, every year!

47. Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler (Knopf, 1991. 352 pages)

"Ian Bedloe is the ideal teenage son, leading a cheery, apple-pie life with his family in Baltimore. That is, until a careless and vicious rumor leads to a devastating tragedy. Imploding from guilt, Ian believes he is the one responsibly for the tragedy. No longer a star athlete with a bright future, and desperately searching for salvation, he stumbles across a storefront with a neon sign that simply reads: CHURCH OF THE SECOND CHANCE.

Ian has always viewed his penance as a burden. But through the power of faith and the love of family, he begins to view it as a gift. After years spent trying to atone for his foolish mistakes, Ian finds forgiveness and peace in the life he builds for himself."

Micro review: Another Christmas-oriented novel mentioned by Sarah Arthur (and, I think, also in Eugene Peterson's Take & Read), I found the plot intriguing and the characters beautifully developed, but did not love several of the ways the plot played out over the several decades and left the book feeling disappointed. Still recommend as a well-written novel by a well-loved author.

48. The Good and Beautiful God: Falling In Love With the God Jesus Knows by James Bryan Smith (IVP Books, 2009. 232 pages)

"God wants me to try harder." "God blesses me when I'm good and punishes me when I'm bad." "God is angry with me." We all have ideas that we tell ourselves about God and how he works in our lives. Some are true--but many are false. James Bryan Smith believes those thoughts determine not only who we are, but how we live. In fact, Smith declares, the most important thing about a person is what they think about God. The path to spiritual transformation begins here. Turning to the Gospels, Smith invites you to put your ideas to the test to see if they match up with what Jesus himself reveals about God. Once you've discovered the truth in Scripture, Smith leads you through a process of spiritual formation that includes specific activities aimed at making these new narratives real in your body and soul as well as your mind. At the end of each chapter you'll find an opportunity for soul training, engaging in spiritual practices that reinforce the biblical messages on your mind and heart. Because the best way to make a complete and lasting change is to go through the material in community, small group discussion questions also accompany each chapter. Those who are leading apprentice groups will also find additional help and opportunities to interact with other leaders at the Apprentice website, www.apprenticeofjesus.com. This deep, loving and transformative book will help you discover the narratives that Jesus lived by--to know the Lord he knew and the kingdom he proclaimed--and to practice spiritual exercises that will help you grow in the knowledge of our good and beautiful God."

Micro review: We read this as a Sunday morning small group, and I was impressed not only with the author's substantive theological insight, but also with his gracious tone and impeccable recommendations for spiritual practices to make each theological truth about God's character root itself deeply in our hearts. Highly recommend - especially for group reading!


Go to my reading lists page to see my reading lists from 2016 and previous years.

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

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!

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!

What I Read In September & October

The charming  Pequot Library  in Southport, CT.

The charming Pequot Library in Southport, CT.

See what I read in JanuaryFebruary & March/AprilMay/June, July, & August.

31. Yes Please! by Amy Poehler (Dey Street Books, 2015. 352 pages.)

I knew and loved Amy Poehler from SNL's Weekend Updates (with Seth Meyers) and the inimitable Leslie Knope from Parks & Rec, but I didn't know much about her Comedy Central debut with the Upright Citizens Brigade or anything, really, about her growing up years. Her work and her life come together so well in this enjoyable memoir. Even more fun, Natalie and I read this together (well, sort of - when she finished the book we'd loaned from the library she handed it to me and said I should read it, too.) I will never tire of hearing about the creative journeys of artists, and this book provides that, alongside quirky sorts of "life lessons" reminiscent of her web series Smart Girls.

32.  Evans Above (Constable Evans, Book 1) by Rhys Bowen (Berkley, 1998. 224 pages)

Brian and I took a couple of days to get away in October, and I needed the most cozy of reading to accompany us. Rhys Bowen's Constable Evans series was the perfect fit. I read the first three books in the series in two days! The only thing that distracted me from the pleasant Welsh community and their idyllic Welsh village (suffering a disproportionately large number of suspicious deaths!) was trying to imagine who the BBC would cast as Constable Evans in a televised version of the series.

Here's the Amazon blurb for Book 1: "Little Llanfair has its share of characters—two ministers vying for the souls of their flock, one lascivious barmaid, and three other Evanses: Evans-the-Meat, Evans-the-Milk, and Evans-the-Post.

But before Evan—now knows as Evans-the-Law—can enjoy Llanfair's tranquillity, he's called to the scene of a crime as brutal as any in the big city. Two hikers have been murdered on the trails of the local mountain, and now Evan must hunt down a vicious killer in a town where one of his lovable new neighbors could prove to be deadly..."

33. Evan Help Us (Constable Evans, Book 2) by Rhys Bowen (Minotaur Books, 1998. 224 pages.)

Here's the Amazon blurb for Book 2: "Evan Evans is settling into his role as Constable of Llanfair, a small town nestled in the mountains of North Wales. Here, he has been a mediator of the minor disputes of the locals, between competing ministers, country merchants, and seemingly every Welch eccentric throughout the region. But an unusual series of events brings unseen hostilities to light, and Evan realizes just how deep the townsfolk's passions and hostilities lie. 

34. Evanly Choirs (Constable Evans, Book 3) by Rhys Bowen (Berkley, 2000. 256 pages)

Here's the Amazon blurb for Book 3: "When Constable Evan Evans is persuaded to join the local male choir for the upcoming eisteddfod (cultural festival), he doesn't think the addition of his mediocre voice will do them much good. In spite of all the effort that choirmaster Mostyn Phillips puts in to the choir, it is not exactly first class. Hope arrives in the form of world renowned tenor Ifor Llewelyn, come home to Llanfair to rest, on doctor's orders."

35. Murphy's Law (Molly Murphy Mystery, Book 1) by Rhys Bowen (Minotaur Books, 2013. 226 pages)

During our October get away, I also jumped into another Rhys Bown cozy mystery series, The Molly Murphy mysteries. I started with these, intrigued by the Irish protagonist. I was a bit disappointed to discover that, while many of the characters are Irish, the books are set in 19th-century New York City rather than in her homeland of the Emerald Isle.

Still, I like the character and am enjoying the love interest, if not the actual mysteries they are solving as much.  

Here's the Amazon blurb for Book 1: "Molly Murphy always knew she'd end up in trouble, just as her mother predicted. So, when she commits murder in self-defense, she flees her cherished Ireland, and her identity, for the anonymous shores of America. When she arrives in new York and sees the welcoming promise of freedom in the Statue of Liberty, Molly begins to breathe easier. But when a man is murdered on Ellis Island, a man Molly was seen arguing with, she becomes a prime suspect in the crime.

Using her Irish charm and sharp wit, Molly escapes Ellis Island and sets out to find the wily killer on her own. Pounding the notorious streets of Hell's Kitchen and the Lower East Side, Molly make sit her desperate mission to clear her name before her deadly past comes back to haunt her new future."

36. In Like Flynn (Molly Murphy Mystery, Book 2) by Rhys Bowen (Minotaur Books, 2015. 336 pages)

Here's the Amazon blurb for Book 2: "

Fledgling private investigator Molly Murphy's latest assignment gives her the opportunity to escape the typhoid epidemic sweeping across New York City in the summer of 1902 for the lush Hudson River Valley. And it comes from an unlikely source-Captain Daniel Sullivan, a New York City police detective and erstwhile beau of Molly's. She has vowed to keep him at arm's length until he can rid himself of his socialite fiancée, but she can't pass up the chance to take advantage of his offer of a real detective job.

Daniel hires Molly to go undercover inside the country household of Senator Barney Flynn, in Peekskill, New York. Flynn's wife, Theresa, has become the latest devotee of a pair of spiritualists known as the Sorensen Sisters. The frail Theresa is desperate to use the sisters' alleged abilities to hold a séance to contact her infant son, who was kidnapped five years ago and never found; the accused kidnapper was killed before he could tell police where the boy was being held. But the police are sure the women are frauds.

When Molly allows herself to be distracted from the Sorensen Sisters and the members of the Flynn household by the unsolved kidnapping, it is a race against time to find out what's really going on before it's too late."

37. The Graces We Remember: Sacred Days of Ordinary Time (Stories From the Farm in Lucy) by Phyllis Tickle (Loyola Press, 2004. 150 pages)

I know the late Phyllis Tickle only from the work she did compiling prayer manuals known as The Divine Hours. I found at a library book sale this sweet trilogy of short stories written throughout the span of the liturgical year at the author's family farm in Lucy, Tennessee. Naturally, I want to read each title in the appropriate season, thus The Graces We Remember in the closing months of Ordinary Time. 

Next up: What the Land Already Knows: Winter's Sacred Days for Advent through Epiphany and then Wisdom in the Waiting: Spring's Sacred Days for Lent through Pentecost.

An excerpt: "There is something glorious about the fall in and of itself. It demands almost nothing of us except our applause. Save for putting up the hay and gathering in the last of the vegetables for preserving, the hard chores are done until the first freeze comes. The world is still warm, but comfortably so for the first time in months; and the chilly evenings speak only of the exhilaration of winter, not of its risks and dangers."

38. Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre (Eerdmans, 2009. 256 pages)

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, Cherish Silence. 

I enjoyed this as much during my re-read with our church reading group as I did the first time I read McEntyre's engaging ode to a word fitly spoken. Our group (Apostles Reads) 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.

39. The End of Summer by Rosamunde Pilcher (St. Martin's Paperback, 2013. 241 pages)

I read this little novel, appropriately, in the first days of September. I still far prefer Winter Solstice to anything else I've read by Rosamunde Pilcher, but I'll never tire of sweet stories with substantive characters set in the Scottish countryside. 

Here's the Amazon blurb: "After years in the United States, Jane returns to the tranquil Scottish estate, Elvie, where she spent a magical childhood. Memories of Elvie had always summoned the image of Sinclair, the rakish man Jane had once dreamed of marrying, but now that she is home, she finds Sinclair a different man. His charm has a purpose, and Jane can no longer trust him...or herself, in The End of Summer."


Go to my reading lists page to see my reading lists from 2016 and previous years.

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

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

What are you reading these days? 

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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!