I hope you enjoy the dozen recommendations on my newest blog post! Lots of novels and memoirs with a sprinkling of spiritual non-fiction and one lovely poetry compilation from Plough .
What've YOU been reading lately? Drop me a comment below!
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.)
32. The Lowland
By Jhumpa Lahiri (Vintage, 2014. 432 pages)
National Book Award Finalist and shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize
”The Lowland is an engrossing family saga steeped in history: the story of two very different brothers bound by tragedy, a fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past, a country torn apart by revolution, and a love that endures long past death. Moving from the 1960s to the present, and from India to America and across generations, this dazzling novel is Jhumpa Lahiri at the height of her considerable powers.”
Micro Review: I’ve enjoyed every book I’ve read from Jhumpa Lahiri starting several years ago with Unaccustomed Earth which was suggested by the IAM Reader’s Guild. (Here’s the brief review I wrote for them.) Lahiri’s ability to tell a story from a perspective that’s so other than my own experience, yet to help me feel like I understand and sympathize with her characters makes me trust her as an author. In The Lowland, she expertly wove together seventy plus years of one family’s experience, across two continents and from multiple perspectives. She’s able to shift between multiple perspectives and eras easily in a way that I’d call unself-conscious, and that doesn’t even begin to address her ability to create a framework on a little-known (especially to us Westerners) political revolt in India (related to Mao in China) during the 1960s. I’m so impressed and feel cared for as a reader even as I felt disappointed by so many of the choices the characters make in isolating themselves from life-giving relationships. In spite of the disappointment, we leave the family - now having gotten to know four generations with a sense of hope for their future. A deeply satisfying read.
33. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir: A Novel
By Jennifer Ryan (Broadway Books, 2017 (reprint). 432 pages)
“As England becomes enmeshed in the early days of World War II and the men are away fighting, the women of Chilbury village forge an uncommon bond. They defy the Vicar’s stuffy edict to close the choir and instead “carry on singing,” resurrecting themselves as the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. We come to know the home-front struggles of five unforgettable choir members: a timid widow devastated when her only son goes to fight; the older daughter of a local scion drawn to a mysterious artist; her younger sister pining over an impossible crush; a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia hiding a family secret; and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past.
An enchanting ensemble story that shuttles from village intrigue to romance to the heartbreaking matters of life and death, Jennifer Ryan’s debut novel thrillingly illuminates the true strength of the women on the home front in a village of indomitable spirit.”
Micro Review: Good as a quick, entertaining vacation read. I didn’t love the epistolary format and would’ve preferred a straight-up third-person plot-driven book. Still, it was a WWII English village full of feisty ladies who love to sing. That’s kind of hard to dislike.
34. The Twilight of Courage: A Novel
By Bodie and Brock Thoene (Thomas Nelson Inc, 1994. 614 pages)
“The Gold Medallion Book Award winner by Bodie and Brock Thoene. The Twilight of Courage is a retelling of World War II that intertwines the stories of two American journalists' escape from the collapse of Warsaw, with those of an orphaned baby's journey to Jerusalem, a mathematician's attempt to crack Nazi code, and more.”
Micro Review: This was a nostalgic throw-back to the Thoene series of books my grandmother and I used to read together. We were slowly meandering our way from Austin to Connecticut after taking our daughter back to school this summer and mid-way I ran out of books! Shout out to AFK Books & Records in Virginia Beach for solving my vacation reading crisis and for offering a giant selection of new and used books and good prices. This isn’t my favorite Thoene dive into World War II, but it’s the most ambitious covering so many hotspots across Europe in the early days of the war when the world began to acknowledge the desperation of the times. The Thoenes have got research and plot-writing chops. More than that, they provided a shared reading experience for me and my grandmother.
35. A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership
By Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2013. 256 pages)
“The story of the community of Port William is one of the great works in American literature. This collection, the tenth volume in the series, is the perfect occasion to celebrate Berry's huge achievement. It feels as if the entire membership--all the Catletts, Burley Coulter, Elton Penn, the Rowanberrys, Laura Milby, the preacher's wife, Kate Helen Branch, Andy's dog, Mike--nearly everyone returns with a story or two, to fill in the gaps in this long tale. Those just now joining the Membership will be charmed. Those who've attended before will be enriched.
For more than fifty years, Wendell Berry has been telling us stories about Port William, a mythical town on the banks of the Kentucky River, populated over the years by a cast of unforgettable characters living in a single place over a long time. In A Place in Time, the story dates range from 1864, when Rebecca Dawe finds herself in her own reflection at the end of the Civil War, to one from 1991 when Grover Gibbs' widow, Beulah, attends the auction as her home place is offered for sale.”
Micro Review: There is never a wrong time to read Port William stories, and this collection of characters worked its way toward the top of the list of my favorites from Wendell Berry. I’m especially enamored with the preacher’s wife Laura Milby from “A Desirable Woman”. As a preacher’s daughter and now a preacher’s wife, and even with many different life circumstances I totally understood this woman.
“For nearly the whole congregation, or for all of them, and especially the men and children, there was a disconnection between the little white clapboard church with its steeple and bell, its observances and forms of worship, and the world’s daily life and work. . . . Laura recognized these disconnections in the people because she felt them, and labored over them, in herself,” Berry wrote.
“And when, having done all he could do to help a family through a quarrel or an illness or a death, performing services he was not paid for and could not have been paid for, he might never hear from them again, let alone see their faces even for the courtesy of one Sunday among his hearers, Laura felt herself wounded with sorrow for him and anger at them for their ingratitude.”
Spiritual Non-Fiction / Theology / Spiritual Disciplines
36. Strong and Weak: Embracing A Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing
By Andy Crouch (IVP Books, 2016. 192 pages)
“Flourishing people are strong and weak. Two common temptations lure us away from abundant living--withdrawing into safety or grasping for power. True flourishing, says Andy Crouch, travels down an unexpected path--being both strong and weak. We see this unlikely mixture in the best leaders--people who use their authority for the benefit of others, while also showing extraordinary willingness to face and embrace suffering. We see it in Jesus, who wielded tremendous power yet also exposed himself to hunger, ridicule, torture and death. Rather than being opposites, strength and weakness are actually meant to be combined in every human life and community. Only when they come together do we find the flourishing for which we were made. With the characteristic insight, memorable stories and hopeful realism he is known for, Andy Crouch shows us how to walk this path so that the image of God can shine through us. Not just for our own good, but for the sake of others. If you want to become the kind of person whose influence leads to healthy communities, someone with the strength to be compassionate and generous, this is the book for you. Regardless of your stage or role in life, whether or not you have a position of leadership, here is a way to love and risk so that we all, even the most vulnerable, can flourish.”
Micro Review: So, so good. My sister’s been telling me to read this book for years and after a summer of daily submersion in helplessness, I finally started reading this book. Andy Crouch is one of my favorite current authors and speakers for his gift of distilling more abstract philosophies and theological realities into accessible frameworks. His 2x2 grid to help us assess individually and collectively where we and our neighbors live on the spectrum of authority and vulnerability, flourishing and withdrawing, exploiting and suffering is essential reading for all church leaders. Read now and often.
“If you want one last picture of authority and vulnerability together, laughter will do the trick. To laugh, to really laugh out loud, is to be vulnerable, taken beyond ourselves, overcome by surprise and gratitude. And to really laugh may be the last, best kind of authority—the capacity to see the meaning of the whole story and discover that our final act, our only enduring responsibility in that story, is simply celebration, delight and worship.”
― Andy Crouch, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing
Apostles Reads Selections
37. One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race and Love
By John M. Perkins (Moody Publishers, 2018. 208 pages)
“Dr. Perkins’ final manifesto on race, faith, and reconciliation.
We are living in historic times. Not since the civil rights movement of the 60s has our country been this vigorously engaged in the reconciliation conversation. There is a great opportunity right now for culture to change, to be a more perfect union. However, it cannot be done without the church, because the faith of the people is more powerful than any law government can enact.
The church is the heart and moral compass of a nation. To turn a country away from God, you must sideline the church. To turn a nation to God, the church must turn first. Racism won't end in America until the church is reconciled first. Then—and only then—can it spiritually and morally lead the way.
Dr. John M. Perkins is a leading civil rights activist today. He grew up in a Mississippi sharecropping family, was an early pioneer of the civil rights movement, and has dedicated his life to the cause of racial equality. In this, his crowning work, Dr. Perkins speaks honestly to the church about reconciliation, discipleship, and justice... and what it really takes to live out biblical reconciliation.
He offers a call to repentance to both the white church and the black church. He explains how band-aid approaches of the past won't do. And while applauding these starter efforts, he holds that true reconciliation won't happen until we get more intentional and relational. True friendships must happen, and on every level. This will take the whole church, not just the pastors and staff.
The racial reconciliation of our churches and nation won't be done with big campaigns or through mass media. It will come one loving, sacrificial relationship at a time. The gospel and all that it encompasses has always traveled best relationally. We have much to learn from each other and each have unique poverties that can only be filled by one another. The way forward is to become "wounded healers" who bandage each other up as we discover what the family of God really looks like. Real relationships, sacrificial love between actual people, is the way forward. Nothing less will do.”
Micro Review: A member of our church’s reading group (Apostles Reads) recommended this excellent farewell book from the inimitable, 87-year-old John Perkins. We chose to read it during Pentecost as a reminder that Christ’s Body is one body, one race, one blood, and one baptism. We have so much to learn from those like Perkins who’ve given their entire lives to the reconciliation of the mistreated and ignored members of the Church. Brian and I read this out loud to each other and appreciated the simple but profound wisdom from Dr. Perkins as well as the case studies of churches around the United States working toward the goal of desegregating the Church. May the life and work of John and Vera Mae Perkins multiply throughout the next generation of peacemakers and Gospel preachers.
38. Call the Midwife: Shadows of the Workhouse
By Jennifer Worth (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007. 304 pages)
“The sequel to Jennifer Worth's New York Times bestselling memoir and the basis for the PBS series Call the Midwife.
When twenty-two-year-old Jennifer Worth, from a comfortable middle-class upbringing, went to work as a midwife in the direst section of postwar London, she not only delivered hundreds of babies and touched many lives, she also became the neighborhood's most vivid chronicler. Woven into the ongoing tales of her life in the East End are the true stories of the people Worth met who grew up in the dreaded workhouse, a Dickensian institution that limped on into the middle of the twentieth century.
Orphaned brother and sister Peggy and Frank lived in the workhouse until Frank got free and returned to rescue his sister. Bubbly Jane's spirit was broken by the cruelty of the workhouse master until she found kindness and romance years later at Nonnatus House. Mr. Collett, a Boer War veteran, lost his family in the two world wars and died in the workhouse.
Though these are stories of unimaginable hardship, what shines through each is the resilience of the human spirit and the strength, courage, and humor of people determined to build a future for themselves against the odds. This is an enduring work of literary nonfiction, at once a warmhearted coming-of-age story and a startling look at people's lives in the poorest section of postwar London.”
Micro Review: Call the Midwife is still one of my top five favorite television series of all time. I was a bit hesitant to read the original memoir because I thought it might reveal too many differences between the true-life story with what is shown on television. While the television series has gone past the original trilogy of true-life stories by Jennifer Worth, the episodes have remained compelling.
Probably the largest difference in the books is the greater amount of detail Ms. Worth shares about the pockets of depravity in post-war London's poverty -riddled East End. In my opinion, PBS sketches the realities with a soft touch and that serves the viewer well. In her writing, Worth describes in more harsh detail the prostitution, workhouses, abuse and crime she saw first-hand bicycling her way among the labyrinth of over-populated, under-resourced tenements. It was good for me to know these realities because I don't want to be too fragile to know the truth about poverty, misplaced bureaucracy, and human suffering. But I wouldn't have been able to watch it on television. (I should mention that both the books and the program contain depictions that could trigger stress for those who've experienced trauma -- especially pregnancy-related suffering.)
More importantly, knowing better the jagged details sharpened my appreciation for the nun-midwives and district nurses of Nonnatus House. Their gracious, dogged determination to be the hands and feet of their Savior to the suffering women and children (all people, actually) in the heart of a mid-twentieth century Dickensian world teaches me, incarnational love, just as it drew Jennifer Worth (nurse Jenny Lee in the program) to the Gospel.
39. Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
By Ruth Reichl (Random House, 2019. 288 pages)
“When Condé Nast offered Ruth Reichl the top position at America’s oldest epicurean magazine, she declined. She was a writer, not a manager, and had no inclination to be anyone’s boss. Yet Reichl had been reading Gourmet since she was eight; it had inspired her career. How could she say no?
This is the story of a former Berkeley hippie entering the corporate world and worrying about losing her soul. It is the story of the moment restaurants became an important part of popular culture, a time when the rise of the farm-to-table movement changed, forever, the way we eat. Readers will meet legendary chefs like David Chang and Eric Ripert, idiosyncratic writers like David Foster Wallace, and a colorful group of editors and art directors who, under Reichl’s leadership, transformed stately Gourmet into a cutting-edge publication. This was the golden age of print media—the last spendthrift gasp before the Internet turned the magazine world upside down.
Complete with recipes, Save Me the Plums is a personal journey of a woman coming to terms with being in charge and making a mark, following a passion and holding on to her dreams—even when she ends up in a place she never expected to be.”
Micro Review: Modern Mrs. Darcy recommended this new release from favorite author Ruth Reichl for her popular summer reading guide. I still prefer the first from Reichl (Tender At the Bone), but this was an enjoyable summer read nonetheless. I especially enjoyed the behind-the-scenes scoop on the origins (and aftermath!) of David Foster Wallace’s notorious piece “Consider the Lobster”.
40. The Art of the Wasted Day
By Patricia Hampl (Penguin Books, 2019. 288 pages)
“The Art of the Wasted Day is a picaresque travelogue of leisure written from a lifelong enchantment with solitude. Patricia Hampl visits the homes of historic exemplars of ease who made repose a goal, even an art form. She begins with two celebrated eighteenth-century Irish ladies who ran off to live a life of "retirement" in rural Wales. Her search then leads to Moravia to consider the monk-geneticist, Gregor Mendel, and finally to Bordeaux for Michel Montaigne--the hero of this book--who retreated from court life to sit in his chateau tower and write about whatever passed through his mind, thus inventing the personal essay.
Hampl's own life winds through these pilgrimages, from childhood days lazing under a neighbor's beechnut tree, to a fascination with monastic life, and then to love--and the loss of that love which forms this book's silver thread of inquiry. Finally, a remembered journey down the Mississippi near home in an old cabin cruiser with her husband turns out, after all her international quests, to be the great adventure of her life.
The real job of being human, Hampl finds, is getting lost in thought, something only leisure can provide. The Art of the Wasted Day is a compelling celebration of the purpose and appeal of letting go.”
Micro Review: This is another book I bought at a local bookstore (Longfellow Books in Portland) when I ran out of good reading material during our quick overnight to Maine this summer. It’s a rare treat for me to walk into a bookstore and buy a brand new book on a whim, but the cover caught my attention and I remembered my friend Nancy Nordenson mentioning this title in her blog last year. Perfect reading for a short get-away. Hampl mixes her own memories of more leisurely moments in her life and relationships with a somewhat niche exploration into the ideas for good living of people like Gregor Mendel and Michel Montaigne. Occasionally I felt a bit ambivalent about the thread Hampl was trying to weave throughout her book but enjoyed her writing style nonetheless. I recommend reading this book about taking leisure seriously with a light heart and no agenda.
41. Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life
By Tish Harrison Warren (Penguin Books, 2019. 288 pages)
“In the overlooked moments and routines of our day, we can become aware of God's presence in surprising ways. How do we embrace the sacred in the ordinary and the ordinary in the sacred? Framed around one ordinary day, this book explores daily life through the lens of liturgy, small practices, and habits that form us. Each chapter looks at something―making the bed, brushing her teeth, losing her keys―that the author does every day. Drawing from the diversity of her life as a campus minister, Anglican priest, friend, wife, and mother, Tish Harrison Warren opens up a practical theology of the everyday. Each activity is related to a spiritual practice as well as an aspect of our Sunday worship. Come and discover the holiness of your every day.”
Micro Review: Tsh Warren and I used to live in the same neighborhood and attend the same church. My favorite part of reading this beautiful, uncluttered reflection on the holy rhythms of our everyday lives was hearing her voice. If you’ve ever had the privilege of being in real-life conversation with Tish, you’ll know what I mean. She is warm, intelligent, and compelling. Reading this book is the next best thing to a real-life conversation. Enjoy!
42. Everything Happens For A Reason (and other lies I’ve loved)
By Kate Bowler (Random House, 2019. 208 pages)
“Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School with a modest Christian upbringing, but she specializes in the study of the prosperity gospel, a creed that sees fortune as a blessing from God and misfortune as a mark of God’s disapproval. At thirty-five, everything in her life seems to point toward “blessing.” She is thriving in her job, married to her high school sweetheart, and loves life with her newborn son.
Then she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.
The prospect of her own mortality forces Kate to realize that she has been tacitly subscribing to the prosperity gospel, living with the conviction that she can control the shape of her life with “a surge of determination.” Even as this type of Christianity celebrates the American can-do spirit, it implies that if you “can’t do” and succumb to illness or misfortune, you are a failure. Kate is very sick, and no amount of positive thinking will shrink her tumors. What does it mean to die, she wonders, in a society that insists everything happens for a reason? Kate is stripped of this certainty only to discover that without it, life is hard but beautiful in a way it never has been before.
Frank and funny, dark and wise, Kate Bowler pulls the reader deeply into her life in an account she populates affectionately with a colorful, often hilarious retinue of friends, mega-church preachers, relatives, and doctors. Everything Happens for a Reason tells her story, offering up her irreverent, hard-won observations on dying and the ways it has taught her to live.”
Micro Review: I read Kate Bowler’s compelling story in one extended reading session. I suspect you’ll do the same. I’d heard this title multiple times, but it took an in-person conversation with a new friend to remind me to check our library.
My friend Andrea Dilley wrote an excellent review at CT: Kate Bowler: I Reject the Prosperity Gospel but I Still Crave What It Promises: How terminal cancer gave a young historian greater sympathy with those seeking after “health and wealth.”
Plough Book Reviews
43. The Heart’s Necessities: A Life In Poetry
By Jane Tyson Clement (Author), Veery Huleatt (Editor), and Becca Stevens (Introduction) (Plough Publishing House, 2019. 160 pages)
“Years after her death, a poet's life and work speak across the generations, inspiring new music and more intentional living.
What are the heart's necessities? It's a question Jane Tyson Clement asked herself over and over, both in her poetry and in the way she lived. The things that make life worth living she found in joy and grief, love and longing, and, most importantly, something to believe in. Her observation of the seasons of the soul and of the natural world have made her poems beloved to many readers, most recently jazz artist Becca Stevens. Clement's poetry has gained new life - and a new audience - as lyrics in the songs of this pioneering musician of another century.
Like many great poets, from Emily Dickinson to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jane Tyson Clement (1917-2000) has found more readers since her death than in her lifetime. A new generation that prizes honesty and authenticity is finding in Clement - a restless, questing soul with a life as compelling as her work - a voice that expresses their own deepest feelings, values, and desires.
In this attractive coffee table collection of new and selected poems, editor Veery Huleatt complements Clement's poetry with narrative sketches and scrapbook visuals to weave a biography of this remarkable woman who took the road less traveled, choosing justice over comfort, conviction over career, and love over fame.
Micro Review: What a lovely, lovely read! Admittedly, it took me a bit to get into the gentle rhythm of this intersection of mid-twentieth-century poems, biographic material, and current singer-songwriter reflections. Approach this lovely read with a gentle, open perspective and you will be richly rewarded.
See what others are saying:
Heaven Is Above Me by John Wilson (reviewer extraordinaire!) via First Things
The Heart’s Necessities (with Veery Huleatt) by Joy Clarkson (a multi-media review as lovely as the book itself)
Becca Stevens’ posthumous collaboration created the richest settings for Jane Tyson Clement’s poems (listen here). For myself, I’ve chosen another favorite.
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!