Category Archives: Books

Reading, writing, authors, publishing, authonomy, inspiration.

Called and Keeping Place: Two Very Short Book Reviews

This month I simultaneously listened to Jen Pollock Michel’s Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home and paged through Ryan Pemberton’s Called: My Journey to C.S. Lewis’s House and Back Again. It was a fascinating combo platter. Both Michel and Pemberton found themselves far from their places of origin and longing for home. Both explore the geographical cost of discipleship. Both use story to tease out theology. And both were terrific.

Having just returned from Oxford (Pemberton’s stomping ground) and having so recently published a book with the working title “Homesick” (ultimately Thirty Thousand Days), I couldn’t not read either of these books. Indeed, there were so many familiar moments in each one that a fly on the wall might have heard me yelp in recognition.

Here is a teaser for each, for those of you looking for your next good read. Be sure to check out the links to their respective websites, too.

keeping-place-11Keeping Place.  As one who is demonstrably preoccupied with Home and homesickness, I loved this book. Michel’s depth of historical study and the fascinating connections she makes between ideas and moments in time are so impressive. She writes like a scholar but not necessarily for scholars—she teases out universal themes and relates them to all of us. I listened to the audio version, so there is much I did not catch (a hazard of audio books), but I enjoyed it enough to covet a paper copy for my shelf, one to dog-ear and underline. From her early discussion of “nostalgia” (did you know homesickness was once considered a medical condition?) to her closing chapter on our forever Home, this is a great exploration of the human condition.

Called by Ryan J. PembertonCalled.  Fast paced, thought provoking, entertaining, and scattered throughout with great nuggets. Pemberton is a great storyteller, and a very likable protagonist. You have the feeling he and his wife would make great friends. There are plenty of Lewis stories for Narnia lovers, publishing misadventures for aspiring authors, and reflections on discerning God’s will for anyone. Another one to keep and refer back to (or re-read) in the future, whenever the idea of following God in crazy directions is daunting and the way forward is unclear.

The Best Book You (Almost) Never Read

Maybe it’s the book you rescued from a yard sale, or the one you left abandoned on a shelf for years because the cover was awful.  Maybe it’s one that was mis-shelved at the library right between two of your favorites, and you found yourself looking at it on a whim.  Maybe you happened to hear two people randomly mention it within a few days of each other and then saw a copy on a friend’s coffee table.

Sometimes the best books are the ones we almost never read.

It’s definitely true in the publishing world that many of the most legendary classics are books that almost never saw the light of day…

Poems by Emily Dickinson, discovered after her death.

An unusually fat grade-school novel by an unknown writer rejected 12 times in a row (Harry Potter).

A quirky little picture book about some tea-drinking bunnies that was self-published because no one else wanted it (Peter Rabbit).

Even Moby Dick reportedly sold only 50 copies during Melville’s lifetime.

If you’ve ever read a book by Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, John Grisham, James Patterson, Madeleine L’Engle, Louis L’Amour, Dr. Seuss, or Margaret Mitchell, you’ve met an author in those pages whose books narrowly escaped dying in a dresser drawer, unpublished.  And it’s not just fluff fiction:  books by Chinua Achebe, E.E. Cummings, Jack Kerouac, William Golding, Alice Walker, James Joyce, George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Yann Martel have been insulted, misunderstood, and unceremoniously shot down time and again.  And some that were printed in the author’s lifetime moldered on the bookstore shelves until the writer was dead and gone for decades (ever heard of Jane Austen?)

Aspiring writers often moan about the devilish catch-22 of getting anything published without platform when platform is so hard to achieve if you haven’t been published.  But our problem is hardly new to the internet age.  (Joseph Heller himself felt it, too.)  Loads of manuscripts pile up on publishers’ desks, and the poor guys/gals have to sort through the Pulitzers and the drivel without the help of a crystal ball.  They’re searching for the needle in a papery haystack.

At Blackwell’s in Oxford, I saw a great display of books wrapped in brown paper with just a handwritten teaser on the front.  “Wildly imaginative story about a shipwreck, a tiger, and the meaning of life.”  “One victim, a dozen suspects, all stranded on a luxury train in a blizzard.”  “A puzzle book written in exquisite prose, perfect for fans of so-and-so.”  What a super idea!  Pick the book blind, not for its reputation or its famous author or its fancy cover art; let it speak on its own terms.

Last year my reading resolution was to review the books I read (on Goodreads, Amazon, wherever).  What if next year’s reading resolution went something like this:  for every book I read because I already know and love the author I’ll try one by someone unknown?  For every bestseller I’ll browse the shelves for one I’ve never heard of?

What if we don’t let the big shots in New York dictate what we’ll read this year, but look for the treasure in the brown paper bag?

You can click on my Want-to-Read pile at Goodreads for some inspiration if you want.  But I’m on the lookout, too, so give me your best suggestions below.  What’s a book we’ve never heard of that you know we’d all love?

What’s the best book you almost never read?

Photo on Visual hunt

Fool’s Talk and my DIY Seminary

“As the early church boasted rightly, the message of Jesus is both simple enough for a child to paddle in and deep enough for an elephant to swim in.”  — Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk

So I am a few months in to my DIY seminary project, and delighted to report that I have found several books on my list available for download from the library.  I’ve listened to The Great Divorce while driving, Fool’s Talk while doing dishes, A Reason For God while folding clothes, and Hillbilly Elegy while chopping vegetables.  Having a collection of brilliant men to listen to while scrubbing pots can turn Cinderella into a sorta-scholar faster than you can say “can somebody please send me a maid for Christmas.”

Now, it’s a little bit impossible for a visual learner like myself to fully absorb a complex book like Os Guinness’s while multi-tasking, and I’ll freely admit it’s not the same as sitting in on a philosophy class, but I gotta think it’s better than binge-watching reruns on Netflix.  It has stoked in me a greater desire to really delve in — to take the class, argue with the professor, write the essays.  But if, like me, you are a) strapped for cash, b) short on time, and c) already overcommitted, I offer this encouragement: all the great thoughts that have ever been thunk have probably been written down somewhere in a book that you can find, free, at a library.  In fact, such notably brilliant people as Abraham Lincoln, Jack London, and Ray Bradbury were mostly self-educated folks who wore out their library cards.  I’m with Paul:  “Bring the books!” II Timothy 4:13, KMV (Kate Morgan Version)

I couldn’t do justice to a full book review of Fool’s Talk without getting an actual paper copy and skimming it over again, but I’ll say enough to whet your appetite if you’re into apologetics.  First, this is not a book about winning arguments, improving your evangelistic technique, or how Charles Darwin ruined American schools.  This is, instead, a brilliant challenge to think well, to think comprehensively, and to consider the myriad ways a Christian worldview shapes how we interact with the world.  It is much more important to love than to win.

I find Guinness to be warm, winsome, and deep, his logic masterful, and his unpacking of competing worldviews incisive.  Guinness is 76 years old, and avoided writing a book about apologetics until 2015 because he promised God he’d do apologetics before he ever dared write about it.  He’s written a long list of other books, which I can’t wait to dive into.  But buyer beware; he’s wicked smart.  I listened to Fool’s Talk at a slightly reduced speed to give my little brain time to process his train of thought.  That helped, but there were times I had to rewind and pay better attention.

My big takeaway from Fool’s Talk is similar to the point of my whole DIY seminary project:  if Christianity is true, it is absolutely comprehensive.  It must impact every decision I make, every habit I acquire, and every action I perform.  It must be big enough to contain every smaller truth and to answer every possible objection.  Therefore, it is grand enough to encompass every great thought of every philosopher, historian, poet, scientist, and theologian of all time, and it would take countless lifetimes to begin to scratch the surface.  I simply don’t have “world enough and time” to fritter if it’s a goal to love the Lord with all my mind.

Thank God for the library.

A couple interesting resources you might like to listen to if you enjoy apologetics:

Book Nook: High School Edition

So my oldest two kids are enrolled in a dual-credit high school/ community college English class.  Imagine my surprise when they weren’t assigned any books the first quarter!  Well, turns out it’s more of a rhetoric and analysis class, ergo, no books.  Wanting them to please, for the love of Pete, PUT DOWN THE DEVICE AND READ, I made them a list for the sole ugly purpose of bribery.

Read one of mine, and I’ll buy you one of your choice.  Read ten of mine, and I’ll give you Big Bucks.

It occurs to me that many of you might face the same dilemma and wonder where to start.  What are the great classics worth reading?  Which books are the right combination of challenging and “hooking,” as my kids like to say — which ones are entertaining enough to overcome reluctant readers?  Which ones are a pretty safe bet for a PG read?  And some of you might just want a new audio book from the library to pass the time while driving.  Here ya go.

I offer the following list with a disclaimer:  I have not read every single title on this list.  Out of 99, I have read 56 of these, many others by the same authors, and chunks of several listed.  Those I haven’t read made the cut either because I’ve heard glowing reviews or because they are on my own lifetime I-really-oughta-read-this list.  Use your own discretion.

Most of these are novels, ranging from old school classics to science fiction.  There are short stories, plays, nonfiction, and poems as well.  Some of them are more enlightening than entertaining, and a sprinkling are more entertaining than informative.  (I think it’s a crime to make reading something your kids will dread.)  I didn’t bother to list the books my kids gravitate toward on their own; the point of this list is to stretch them.  Some come from a very different world view than my own, and are important for digesting/ discussing/ interacting with.  The last part of the list are explicitly Christian books (you can see where the alphabetizing starts over).  These are just a sampling from my pastor husband’s shelf — a few of the most accessible ones.  There would be another whole list for a slightly older or younger group — these were my best guesses for kids 14-18.

I didn’t bother to alphabetize the titles, just the authors, so don’t hate.  If you catch a mistake, let me know.  And please, from one reader to another, leave more must-reads for high schoolers in the comment box below!

99 Books for A Rainy Day

  1. Alcott, Louisa May:  Little Women
  2. Austen, Jane:  Pride and Prejudice
  3. Austen, Jane:  Sense and Sensibility
  4. Austen, Jane:  Emma
  5. Babbitt, Natalie:  Tuck Everlasting
  6. Barrie, JM:  Peter Pan
  7. Berry, Wendell:  Fidelity
  8. Brontë, Charlotte:  Jane Eyre
  9. Brontë, Emily:  Wuthering Heights
  10. Card, Orson Scott:  Ender’s Game
  11. Cather, Willa:  My Antonia
  12. Chesterton, GK:  The Best of Father Brown
  13. Christie, Agatha:  Murder on the Orient Express
  14. Conrad, Joseph:  Heart of Darkness
  15. Crane, Stephen:  The Red Badge of Courage
  16. Defoe, Daniel:  Robinson Crusoe
  17. Dickens, Charles:  Oliver Twist
  18. Dickens, Charles:  A Christmas Carol
  19. Dickinson, Emily:   Poetry
  20. Dillard, Annie:  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
  21. Dillard, Annie:  An American Childhood
  22. Doig, Ivan:  Sweet Thunder
  23. Du Bois, WEB:  The Souls of Black Folk
  24. Enger, Leif:  Peace Like a River
  25. Equiano, Olaudah:  The Life of Olaudah Equiano
  26. Frank, Anne:  Diary of Anne Frank
  27. Frost, Robert:  Poetry
  28. Gladwell, Malcolm:  Outliers
  29. Golding, William:  Lord of the Flies
  30. Griffin, John Howard:  Black Like Me
  31. Grisham, John:  A Time to Kill
  32. Hawthorne, Nathaniel:  The Scarlet Letter
  33. Hemingway, Ernest:  A Farewell to Arms
  34. Hemingway, Ernest:  The Old Man and the Sea
  35. Henry, O:  Short Stories of O. Henry
  36. Herriot, James:  All Creatures Great and Small
  37. Homer:  The Iliad
  38. Homer:  The Odyssey
  39. Hurston, Zora Neale:  Their Eyes Were Watching God
  40. Huxley, Aldous:  Brave New World
  41. Keyes, Daniel:  Flowers for Algernon
  42. King, Jr., Martin Luther:  Letter from a Birmingham Jail
  43. Lee, Harper:  To Kill a Mockingbird
  44. L’Engle, Madeleine:  A Ring of Endless Light
  45. Lowry, Lois:  The Giver
  46. McCullough, David:  1776
  47. McCullough, David:  The Wright Brothers
  48. Miller, Arthur:  Death of a Salesman
  49. Mortenson, Greg:  Three Cups of Tea
  50. Orwell, George:  Animal Farm
  51. Paterson, Katherine:  Jacob Have I Loved
  52. Paton, Alan:  Cry, The Beloved Country
  53. Potok, Chaim:  The Chosen
  54. Ransome, Arthur:  Swallows and Amazons
  55. Rawls, Wilson:  Where the Red Fern Grows
  56. Remarque, Erich Maria:  All Quiet On The Western Front
  57. Sayers, Dorothy:  Lord Peter
  58. Shaara, Michael:  The Killer Angels
  59. Shelley, Mary:  Frankenstein
  60. Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr:  One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
  61. Steinbeck, John:  Of Mice and Men
  62. Stevenson, Robert Lewis:  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  63. Stevenson, Robert Lewis:  Treasure Island
  64. Stowe, Harriet Beecher:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  65. Swift, Jonathan:  Gulliver’s Travels
  66. Twain, Mark:  Huckleberry Finn
  67. Washington, Booker T:  Up From Slavery
  68. Weisel, Elie:  Night
  69. Wilde, Oscar:  The Importance of Being Earnest
  70. Wilder, Thornton:  Our Town
  1. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich:  Cost of Discipleship
  2. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich:  Life Together
  3. Bunyan, John:  Pilgrim’s Progress
  4. Chan, Francis:  Crazy Love
  5. Cymbala, Jim:  Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire
  6. Elliott, Elisabeth:  Shadow of the Almighty
  7. Graham, Billy:  Just As I Am
  8. Hayes, Dan:  Fireseeds of Spiritual Awakening
  9. Keller, Timothy:  Generous Justice
  10. Keller, Timothy:  A Reason for God
  11. Lewis, CS:  The Screwtape Letters
  12. Lewis, CS:  The Space Trilogy
  13. Lewis, CS:  Till We Have Faces
  14. Little, Paul:  Know What You Believe
  15. Little, Paul:  Know Why You Believe
  16. McDowell, Josh:  More Than a Carpenter
  17. Mextaxas, Eric:  Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
  18. Packer, JI:  Knowing God
  19. Piper, John:  Don’t Waste Your Life
  20. Perkins, John:  With Justice for All
  21. Platt, David:  Radical
  22. Reeves, Michael:  Rejoicing in Christ
  23. Reeves, Michael:  Delighting in the Trinity
  24. Richardson, Don:  Eternity in their Hearts
  25. Tolkien, JRR:  Lord of the Rings
  26. Tozer, AW:  The Pursuit of God
  27. Tozer, AW:  Knowledge of the Holy
  28. Ten Boom, Corrie:  The Hiding Place
  29. Yancey, Philip:  The Jesus I Never Knew

A Few Reasons to Read A Reason for God

“A faith without some doubts is like a human body with no antobodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask the hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.” –Timothy Keller

Presumably a real grad school doesn’t assign books based on what’s available… at this exact moment… for free… in audio format.  But that’s exactly my scientific approach and I’m going with it.  First up in my DIY Seminary plan, then, was Timothy Keller’s Reason for God, because yeah, it came out like a decade ago and I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Don’t judge, yo.

Keller’s book is clear, calm, and rational but also eloquent. I’m sure hearing it read aloud by the man himself influenced my view, but his famously deadpan delivery has a way of making his most impassioned viewpoints seem inevitable.  He’s able to take a heated issue and let the air out slowly before it blows, as when he discusses the Christian view of hell.  You can imagine the blustery critic slowly lowering his rock just before the stoning commenced.

I’d say Reason for God is sure to be a classic apologetic if it weren’t so rooted in our times. But then again, the ideas Keller counters have had a way of popping up repeatedly over the centuries, so maybe it will still speak to the culture in 100 years.  Jesus merely a good person but not really divine?  That idea goes back at least as far as Arius (AD 250-336).  Science has displaced religion as the ultimate truth?  Back to the Enlightenment (which, ironically, was strongly influenced by a good many Christians, for example, Francis Bacon.)  So maybe in our nothing-new-under-the-sun world, each succeeding apologist just puts new wrapping paper on what’s essentially the same set of ideas.

Reason for God isn’t so much a new argument as a very carefully constructed presentation of familiar arguments, one small layer added atop the last until it was quite a pile of convincing thoughts. I’d love to be a fly on the wall if a book club full of agnostics read it together.  And that’s kind of what reading it allows you to do.  Keller frequently quotes and discusses many of the Manhattan intellectuals he runs into, delving into their misgivings about faith and speaking to the issues on their lips.

Reading sharp apologetic books has a way of forcing us to think through our faith critically and address our own lurking doubts honestly.  Over a lifetime, each book adds a new layer of understanding, equipping us to share with confidence not only what we believe, but why.

One quibble.  I hate abridged books.  When I borrowed the audio version from the library, I didn’t see any indication that I was getting a shortened version.  Oh, it’s there, buried in the fine print.  Grrr.  Flipping through a paper copy of my husband’s, I started to see things that looked unfamiliar.  Had I fallen asleep?  Not been paying attention?  Nope.  Thank you, Reader’s Digest version.  Sheesh.

Photo via VisualHunt

DIY Degrees: 18 Books for a Year of Thinking Christianly

If wishes were horses, beggars could go to Denver Seminary.  Alas, my horsiest wishes have not given me a wallet of fat cash to go back to school at the moment, but if I could, I would love to take classes on Christ and culture, philosophy, apologetics, and theology.  I’d take classes on Christianity and the arts, poetry, worldview, the Inklings.  In point of fact, I have listened to master’s level classes while I do the dishes, free classes provided by Gordon Conwell or lectures on Youtube.  Ryan Reeves has posted a wealth of material, entire courses on Lewis and Tolkien, Reformation history, and historical theology, enough intellectual stimulation to make the chores fly.  But as I watch my husband buckle down and tackle a Ph.D., I’m amazed at his tenacity, his focus.  Without the accountability, I’d never make myself read the challenging stuff, the brain-stretchers.

Why not?  Why can’t I make a decision, flip a switch, go to the library?  Well, I know me.  I know how I battle laziness and perpetual distraction.  I know how deadlines and threats motivate me in a way lofty dreams never seem to do.  But I also know that it’s silly on some level, childish, really, to wait to fork over vast sums of money to study books that are available largely for free.

One of the great wonders of the internet is the availability of other people’s must-read, must-see, must-do bucket lists.  You can hop on Goodreads and find out what your mentors want to read.  You can peek at Tim Challies’s book reading resolutions, the syllabus of any class at any school.  What a treasure!  A Do-It-Yourself degree!  Well, maybe not quite.  But a good place to start.

Here’s my thought:  even though I never quite accomplish all the things I hope to do, all of the goal-setting and dreaming has a way of changing me.  It’s like those prayers that God never answers in the way I want — the act of praying still changes my heart.  Thinking through what I want to read, what I want to learn, has a way of raising my sights.  Even if I get through only half of what I hope to do, that’s still a lot more progress than I’d make watching Gilmore Girl re-runs on Netflix.

As Challies has pointed out, lots of fantastic books (usually current bestsellers and classics) are available in audio format, and I can usually find a good audio book to download from my local library.  While I was thinking through my Thinking Christianly gotta-read list, I chose the first one I found available for download to start with.  I’m halfway through Tim Keller’s Reason for God, taking it up whenever I’m in the car or scrubbing pots.  I doubt very many of my theologically-heavy books will be possible to find that way, but the good news is that most of my just-for-fun books are.  That means I can listen to novels while I sort laundry and save the seminary stuff for actual feet-up-in-the-evening paper book reading or morning quiet times.

So here’s the beginning of my list — we’ll call it Year One.  I’ll aim for about a book and a half per month.  I’ll never finish!  But that’s no reason not to start.  I tried to balance old and new, exciting and daunting, theological (by which I mean theology in the academic sense — what do I really believe about the person of God) and cultural.

  1. Reason for God, Tim Keller
  2. Morning and Evening, Charles Spurgeon
  3. Delighting in the Trinity, Michael Reeves
  4. Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson
  5. How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer
  6. Let the Nations be Glad, John Piper
  7. Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr
  8. Christ and Culture Revisited, D. A. Carson
  9. This Day, Wendell Berry
  10. Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  11. Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers
  12. The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis
  13. Fool’s Talk, Os Guinness
  14. The Only Wise God, William Lane Craig
  15. Wisdom and Wonder, Abraham Kuyper
  16. Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor
  17. Valley of Vision
  18. Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance

What’s on your list?

Screen Shot 2017-06-17 at 1.00.25 PM

Friends and Books

Maybe you have felt that reading a book is like making a friend, or that, picking up someone else’s pages, you have made a connection across miles and time with the author.  You read someone else’s words and you think, Yes!  I feel the same.  As C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .'”  For a lonely kid, that is the magic of books.

Now, as an author, I see another side of publishing, “red in tooth and claw” as it is.  Books are business, and business is not friendly.  Trying to get a manuscript published is like sucking up the courage needed to run naked across a stage while being pelted with rotten fruit and large pointy objects.  No one sane would do it at all.  But even in the muck of publishing, there is a nice side, the friendship that can bloom in unlikely ways through the pages of a book.

I have been privileged this year to make such a friend, a stranger across the country who was willing to review Thirty Thousand Days.  That it could have gone badly I am well aware.  Even as I sent off a copy, I dived under the bed to wait for tomatoes to fly.  But what I heard to my happy surprise was “What?  You too?” I am pleased to say that I have found a friend in Carolyn Litfin, and I am honored to know her.  If you should happen this week to read a book that makes you happy, find the author (she’s probably hiding under the bed) and tell her so.  We all have room for another friend.

Here’s Carolyn’s kind review.

Photo credit: krecimag via VisualHunt /  CC BY