From All the Possible Shapes | Words of Wednesday

For it feels as if I was made — from all the possible shapes a human might take — not to prove myself worthy but to refine the worth I’m formed from, acknowledge it, own it, spend it on others. –Mary Karr, Lit


Sorry for disappearing for a while. I’ve been traveling (cheering on my dad as he ran the Boston marathon and visiting my younger brother in Redding, California), which is part of my excuse, but probably the greater truth is that writing is on a bit of a back-burner at the moment. After months of stretching my pennies and desperately trying to hustle up work (and figure out how to hustle up work), I’ve actually had more on my plate these last few weeks than I really know what to do with (which doesn’t mean I’ve moved beyond the penny-pinching phase, just that I finally have leads, and lots of catch-up to play as I figure out how to balance my exacting perfectionism against realistic time constraints — in case you didn’t know, The Chicago Manual of Style is large, y’all). And given that I’ll be moving on from Santa Cruz come June, getting that part of my life (the income generating part) locked in, and under control, has become a rather pressing priority.

Nevertheless, I’m rather bummed that I let two weeks go by without a Words of Wednesday post — I mean, how hard can it be to post a quote, after all? But the truth is I never want to just post a quote. I want to talk about it. Want to ramble about what I’ve been reading and thinking — why I care and why I think you should care. So posting a Words of Wednesday without any accompanying commentary feels like its own kind of defeat. (You probably don’t need to be my therapist to realize that I have a problem with an all or nothing mentality.) 

But I’m trying to combat that way of thinking. Trying to remember that something is better than nothing. That done is better than perfect. And that even when I haven’t had a chance to process, mull-over, write, and revise to my heart’s content . . . maybe, even then, I still have something worth saying. Even half-formed, in-process, uncertain . . . maybe there’s value to words even then. Maybe there’s value to me even then. 

Mary Karr’s Lit is a rather meandering memoir, starting, as it does, pre-college, and ending with Karr as a woman in middle age — a divorcee, a sober alcoholic, a writer, a mother, and a Catholic. The text hardly lends itself to clear threads or easy themes, yet the impression it left on me was one of becoming. This is a text about a woman growing up — not a coming of age story about the experiments of adolescence (perhaps Karr’s Cherry, which I have not yet read, covers that ground), but a story about the slow, meandering road to healing and acceptance. To the kind of maturity and adulthood that John Cacioppo references

Karr may have been a published poet fairly early in her life, yet she manages to make her road “home” feel as winding, confused, frustrated, fear-filled, and grace-touched as most of our roads seem — in truth — to be (perhaps even more so). As someone who lives with a constant sense of time running, slipping, lunging past me — of all that I haven’t yet done, and probably never will do — I found Karr’s book a powerful celebration of process. (Can I call it a “celebration” when so much of this book felt so bleak to me? I think, somehow, I can.) A reminder that even those of us who go slow cannot go too slow for grace.

There is deep magic at work here. A holiness to existence. Even in our brokenness and imperfections — even now, at this moment — all things are being made new. Aware, or not, we are in the hands of God. And God is growing us up, one step, one moment, at a time.

Note: I listened to this book in audio format, so I’m relying on a combination of my own and others’ transcriptions (thank you, internet) without the ability to double check punctuation against the original text. I apologize for any errors in accuracy.

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The Making of a Soul | Words of Wednesday

We’re social animals, but we crave solitude to make our souls. —Ursula K. Le Guin, Words Are My Matter


From Ursula K. Le Guin’s “A Very Good American Novel: H. L. Davis’s Honey in the Horn” in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books 2000-2016 (a collection of essays, book reviews, author notes, and introductions). 

A Worthy Life | Words of Wednesday

And she hoped she’d lived a life worthy of the great books she had read. –Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage


This is the cry of my heart. To live a life worthy of the meaning I have glimpsed, the beauty I have tasted.

As my brother reminded me recently, a life spent reading is not a bad life. I certainly hope that is true, for while I can’t claim to be doing much these days, I am certainly reading … as I have read all the years of my life, in all the places I have journeyed.  

Paul Elie’s The Life You Save is an interwoven biography of Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day (the “she” of the above quote). It is “the story of four modern American Catholics who made literature out of their search for God”1 (and very good literature at that: two of them won the National Book Award and all four continue to be read, and read, and read).

I wrote a fairly substantial review on Goodreads, so rather than repeat that all here, let me just say that this spiritual biography is unique in that it is also a literary biography. Not just in its treatment of what these authors wrote (and how they engaged their faith in that process), but in what they read — for all four, to one degree or another, read their way to God.

As I noted in Reading is a Sacred Act, that is a trajectory with which I am intimately familiar.

The story of their lives, then, is also its meaning and its implication for ours. They saw religious experience out before them, they read their way toward it, they believed it, they lived it, they made it their own. With us in mind, they put it in writing. –Paul Elie

Note: I listened to this book in audio format, so I’m relying on a combination of my own and others’ transcriptions (thank you, internet) without the ability to double check punctuation against the original text. I apologize for any errors in accuracy.

Footnotes:

 1. Quoted from the synopsis on Goodreads.

Searching for Sunday | Words of Wednesday

I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security … More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, “Give them something to eat.” —Pope Francis (quoted in Searching for Sunday)


The above quote opens Rachel Held Evans’s Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Churchthe first book I read in 2019 (Malafrena, the first book I finished in 2019, was begun months earlier). And, like Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith, it was a book that spoke to my heart, to my yearning for a spacious, generous faith — a faith that would welcome all to the table: pain, fear, doubt, and question alike. A faith that would say,You are welcome here. While you wrestle. In your uncertainty. Even when you don’t believe. Come anyway. Come to the table. Come eat and drink and be refreshed. Come rest in the presence of Christ.’

This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more. –Rachel Held Evans

From the moment I read Evans’s prologue — parts of which read like a millennial manifesto (articulating what she perceives to be the questions, frustrations, and hopes of this “post-Christian” generation) — I knew I was going to love this book. I found myself chanting yes, yes, yes over and over in my head as I moved from paragraph to paragraph. Evans puts into words (beautiful, articulate words) the heart of much that has been building within me over these past several years (as a quasi-millennial myself, but, even more-so, as a teacher of young adults — young adults who have amazed me, over and over again, with their levels of integrity, courage, compassion … and despair). This book is, in many ways, both an answer to the students who asked me, “Ms. Magnuson, why are you still a Christian?” and a plea to those who (all-too unwittingly) made them think they no longer could be or should be.

It is an attempt to communicate, to bridge a divide, to tell a story. Her story, but also so many of our stories. It is her attempt to point us (all of us, regardless of generation) back to the Jesus we have been searching for — and to encourage, challenge, inspire us to be what he called us to be: his body, the church.

Like every generation before ours, and every generation after, we’re looking for Jesus — the same Jesus who can be found in the strange places he’s always been found: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these. –Rachel Held Evans

As Evans notes in her prologue, millennials are not looking for a hipper version of Christianity, but a truer one: “We millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, so we can smell b.s. from a mile away. The church is the last place we want to be sold another product, the last place we want to be entertained.” Pushing back against a triumphalism that would proclaim Christianity a religion of victory and success — of ascent — Evans claims church as the moment “when a meal, a story, a song, an apology, and even a failure is made holy by the presence of Jesus among us and within us.” She reminds us that Jesus didn’t come bearing quick fixes, and that the church doesn’t offer any either, only “death and resurrection” and “the messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching, never-ending work of healing and reconciliation.” Only grace.

Evans’s book is a reminder of the power of vulnerability and authenticity in a photo-shopped world. A reminder that “there is nothing nominal or lukewarm or indifferent about standing in [a] hurricane of questions every day and staring each one down until you’ve mustered all the bravery and fortitude and trust it takes to whisper just one of them out loud.” A reminder that the Kingdom of Heaven is for the hungry, not the ‘worthy,’ and that our hunger for church is a hunger for “safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth.” That sanctuary — sacred space — is created not so much in the answering, in the fixing, but in the listening, in the holding. In the tears, and the table, and the perfume poured out on dusty feet. Christ came and dwelt among us, yet what he offered was not theological treatise, but life (and life abundant).

Sometimes I wish they’d find someone with a bit more emotional distance to give these lessons, someone who doesn’t have to break herself open and bleed all over the place every time someone asks, innocently enough, ‘So where have you been going to church these days?’ … And yet, I am writing. … I am writing because sometimes we are closer to the truth in our vulnerability than in our safe certainties. Because … even when I don’t believe in church, I believe in resurrection. I believe in the hope of Sunday morning. –Rachel Held Evans

As I wrote in my Goodreads review, “A book that re-instills hope for all the Church is called to be, while elucidating the pitfalls of so much of what we choose to be instead. Prophetic, powerful, truth-speaking.”

Note: I listened to this book in audio format, so I’m relying on a combination of my own and others’ transcriptions (thank you, internet) without the ability to double check punctuation against the original text. I apologize for any errors in accuracy.

Loving Questions | Words of Wednesday

I have given myself over to questions: large, hard, loving, full-blooded questions.
–Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith


I’m currently on a roll of reading one excellent book after another (well, not one after another, exactly, as I’m currently reading 8 books simultaneously — 5 actively, and 3 at a more gradual tempo — but you know what I mean). Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith, the third of my January reads, was no exception.

I wish Krista Tippett needed no introduction. But though I know she has a wide audience for her NPR podcast, On Being — and thus a wide readership — I also know that most of my friends have never heard of her.

Suffice it to say that I consider her one of the wisest, sanest, most hopeful, reflective, careful, balanced, and, well, loving thinkers in the world today.

Her gift is ultimately one of listening, and in her years of interviewing some of the most extraordinary voices in our world — Thich Nhat Hanh, Fr. Richard Rohr, Elie Weisel, Mary Oliver, Parker Palmer, Naomi Shihab Nye (and so, so many more) — the mystics, poets, reformers, and prophets — she has developed deep wells of truth from which to draw.

Her book, Becoming Wise, which I read in 2016, gifted me hope in the midst of a heart-wrenching election, and Speaking of Faith did something similar.

The last few years have left me heartsore and bruised (more so than I realized) from too many run-ins with a version of evangelical Christendom that finds it necessary to draw the lines in bold — the lines separating truth and heresy, the in and the out, the allowed and the repudiated. What is safe and what is not. A kind of Christianity described by Fr. Richard Rohr in Everything Belongs: “It wants to attach itself to everything in order to figure out everything, in order to control everything. It doesn’t have a high tolerance for mystery or even for ambiguity. [It] is preoccupied with clarity and control.”

More than the obsession with right thinking over right action, the disproportionate obsession with sexual “purity,”1 or even the tendency to literalize certain passages of scripture while discarding others as idealized object lessons (the sermon on the mount, anyone?), I am weary of the claim to certainty. Weary of being offered prepackaged answers to prepackaged questions. Weary of being told where to look, what to ask, how to think, who to be. Weary of having this perilous journey of faith simplified into something easy, manageable, logical, safe.

And weary, perhaps most of all, of having to defend (over and over) the sacred spaces where I have encountered God. (In the silence, in the questions, in the what-ifs, in the stories, in the possibilities, in the midrash, in the unknowing.)

Weary of having to fight for the privilege of calling myself a Christian.

And into this weariness, Krista Tippett spoke. For Tippett’s book is, ultimately, a defense of faith. A defense of meaning, mystery, and spiritual truth in a culture that likes to maintain that civilization has moved beyond religious fairytales, but also (more significantly, in my case) a defense of faith as something spacious and large. Something big enough for our questions, our hopes, our deepest longings, our pain. Something not to be dissected, defended, and defined so much as journeyed with, wrestled with, and embraced.

How can I not love a book that qualifies questions as large, hard, and loving?

For sometimes the questions need to be asked (wrestled with, journeyed with, embraced) far more than they need to be answered. And that is a truth I wish the evangelical church could re-embrace.

I have no idea if Krista and I (it feels wrong somehow — too impersonal — to call her Tippett) would agree on any elements of theology. But I don’t really think it matters. This was a book that refreshed my soul and gave my spirit space to breathe. A book that called me back to the life of the spirit, the heart, the mind. A book that restored hope.

I have precious few quotes on-hand from the text (mostly because I was listening to it in audio format — and was often out walking while I did so — so finding the pertinent places to transcribe was difficult at best), but here are a few random snippets taken throughout:

I had decided I believe in God because the world makes too much sense; I still believe in him . . . but no longer that the world makes sense.

___________________________

And paradox always gives me hope. It means there are tensions that long for resolution, gaps that might be pried open by human understanding and connection.

___________________________

This angle of approach to the broken world resists choosing sides and accepts antithesis and contradiction as given realities much of the time. I find that I grieve as bitterly for the broken humanity of the perpetrators of crimes as for their victims. . . . I find it harder and harder to label and dismiss them, render them abstract. I am constrained to be mindful of both the fragility and resilience of the human spirit. I sense that seeing the world the way God sees the world means, in part, grieving in places the world does not forgive and rejoicing in places the world does not notice. It would mean, therefore, to live with a patience that culture cannot sustain and with a hope the world cannot imagine.

Footnotes:

1. I don’t mean to discount the significance of a holistic purity. However, if one were to count up all the times Christ addressed sex in his teaching vs. all the times he addressed other things — well, it would be hard not to get the idea that we’re far more obsessed with the topic than he ever was (and far less obsessed with issues that he took far more seriously: like feeding the poor, for instance). 

A Conscious Act | Words of Wednesday

For any act done consciously may be defiant, may be independent, may change life utterly. –Ursula K. Le Guin, Malafrena


Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of Ursula K. Le Guin’s death. An award-winning fantasy and science fiction writer, whose published work spans more than five decades, Le Guin was (among other things) a woman in a male-dominated field (specifically, the science fiction genre), a life-long student of Taoism, an astute observer of human nature, and an unparalleled tale-weaver, word-smith, and world-builder.

Le Guin sold her first novel at the age of thirty-seven (a fact that, at thirty-one, gives me great hope), and the years she’d already spent as a scholar (as an undergraduate at Radcliffe, as a graduate student at Columbia, and as a Fulbright recipient in France) — not to mention as a mother, wife, and generally thoughtful, engaged human being — lent her books a care and depth that is unquestionably literary (despite their broad public appeal).

I’ve long been a fan — a lover — of Le Guin’s work (especially her Earthsea cycle, which, in contrast to so much contemporary fantasy, manages to create worlds of depth and originality with an economy of pages and words), but it’s only recently that I’ve started to realize the true breadth of her genius. There is a particular kind of joy in discovering that a favorite author is not only brilliant, but prolific — and prolific across genres. I’ve read fifteen of her books to date, and numerous short stories, ranging from fantasy, science fiction, and retold myth to young adult novels and historical fiction, yet there remain a veritable feast of books, essays, and short stories to discover. 

This quote comes from my most recent Le Guin read (which also happens to be the first book I finished in 2019). Set in the early 1800s, in an imaginary central European country, Malafrena was utterly refreshing and unexpected. Published in 1979, it was written (at least in draft form) over twenty-five years earlier, and thus represents the oldest of Le Guin’s published work. It reads . . . well . . . like a text written in central Europe in the early 1800s.

Despite my love and appreciation of Le Guin, her ability to write so far outside her expected canon still took me by surprise. The prose, characterization, and narrative are each rich, complex, nuanced, contradictory, and, ultimately, alien. Not familiar as even her most far-flung worlds are familiar, rooted as they are in a contemporary genre whose questions, contours, and tropes are our own. In contrast, the world of Malafrena is remarkably other: these are not our people (not contemporary minds and hearts, playing dress-up in historic clothes); this is not our time.

Yet the very strangeness echoes like a memory, reminding us of something important we’ve forgotten. As with Chesterton’s “moor eeffoc” (“coffee room” encountered backwards), we are startled awake — and the world is strange and wonderful and new once more.1 

It is a book, ultimately, about the nature of freedom, intentionality, necessity, and all the paradoxes and perils of our entangled, tragic, beautiful, brief, and confounding existence. What a perilous thing is choice; what a marvel to be human and alive.

If this was her world, she was strong enough to live in it. She was a woman, not trained for any public act, not trained to defiance, brought up to the woman’s part: waiting. So she would wait. For any act done consciously may be defiant, may be independent, may change life utterly. –Ursula K. Le Guin, Malafrena

Footnotes:

1. This is an effect I’m more used to attributing to fantasy, than realism (and thus the shock is somehow greater and stranger encountered in a historical novel like Malafrena, hiding as it is in plain sight), but Chesterton himself declared it “the motto of all effective realism.” So who am I to argue? 

A Year in Books (2018)

Looking back over my reading this past year, I have to say I’m pretty pleased with the results. Over 15,000 pages read, across 45 books (which is 3 more books, and 1,500 more pages, than in 2017). But it’s not just the numbers I’m pleased about — it’s the books themselves.

I read some good books this year, from excellent contemporary fiction (which is not my usual fare) to inspiring memoirs — with quite a few joy-rides thrown in. With only a few exceptions, my reading was enjoyable and thought-provoking (sometimes one or the other, but often both at once) — ranging in topic from bird-watching (A Guide to the Birds of East Africa) to writing (Word by Word) to technology (You are Not a Gadget) to depression (Noonday Demon). If I was forced to group this year’s reading by category,  however, the prevailing theme would overwhelmingly be faith. Whether rooted in contemplative tradition (Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh), Christian heritage (Anne Lamott, Emily P. Freeman, Henri Nouwen, Jan Karon, and Sigrid Undset), or elsewhere (Malala Yousafzai, Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Elif Shafakmore), much of my reading this year was concerned — directly or indirectly — with the question of how one is to know and follow God. Of where the Kingdom of Heaven is to be found. Those that resonated the most strongly invited the reader to encounter the divine in the ordinary, holy moments of their lives — here, in this present moment, one inch above the ground.

I’m also proud that, of 45 books read, 20 were written by women. While this is not quite 50%, it’s closer than it could be (closer than it’s often been in the past). Flipping this ratio is one of my goals for 2019 (which is boding fairly well, given that, of the seven books I’ve either completed or begun since January 1st, six were written by women).

Best “Just Fun” Book

Shockingly, despite having read a Rainbow Rowell this year, it’s not making it on the list. Attachments was light and fun — the perfect read to buffer transition and dampen jet-lag — but it was a more forgettable version of the normal Rowell magic, and did not, ultimately, leave much of an impression.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer (The Lunar Chronicles)The winner, therefore, is the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. By no means life-changing, this young adult series was just so unapologetically fun (with the noticeable exception of the second book of the series, Scarlet, which left something to be desired). I inhaled these, staying up reading late into the night, despite my work schedule and teaching commitments — something no book had made me do in a long, long time.

Runner up: It seems only fair to give this to another series which also kept me reading late into the night — this time the Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown. Hardly faultless, it was, nonetheless, gripping — and for the days it took me to complete the series, I could barely put the books down. (Unfortunately, unlike the Lunar Chronicles, which started and ended on a high note, Red Rising took the more expected trajectory of starting strong and weakening over the course of the series.)

Best Audiobook

The Present Moment: A Retreat on the Practice of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat HanhThich Nhat Hanh’s The Present Moment: A Retreat on the Practice of MinfulnessIt would be hard to overstate the impact this audio-recording had on me. It was enlightening in the deepest sense of the word — a door swinging open onto life, and life abundant. Though I’ve listened to some Thich Nhat Hanh in the past, this (in combination with a first-hand account of his lived reality, as told by Sister Chan Kong at the end of Hanh’s novel The Novice) clicked for me in a new way, and I suddenly get what all the fuss is about.

Runners up: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild — which was beautiful, powerful, life-affirming, and among the best nonfiction reads of the year — and Malala Yousafzai’s I am Malalawhich was educational and inspiring.

Best Fiction

The Gunslinger by Stephen King (The Dark Tower series)I read several amazing novels this year, but I have to give this honor to Stephen King’s The GunslingerNot a fan of horror, the only King I’d read before this year was his guide to the craft, On Writing. I’ve had several friends recommend his fantasy, however, so I finally took the plunge, shortly after arriving in Santa Cruz this fall. I’ve read the first four books of The Dark Tower series thus far (inhaling them, one after the other), and I have to say that I’ve enjoyed them all. It is the first one, however (which many cite as the most difficult of the series to enjoy), that I absolutely loved. It is terse and sparse (much like the man, and landscape, it describes), and I was blown away with how much King does with how little. A piece of art.

Runners up: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (one of the most brilliant executions of tone I have ever encountered), Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers (stylistically masterful and not quite like anything else I’ve read), Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (strange and haunting, even if somewhat incomplete in narrative), and Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (essentially a thousand or so pages of character study — yet every word delightful).

Best Non-fiction

Texts of Terror by Phyllis TriblePhyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical NarrativesThis is a fairly technical piece of biblical scholarship, yet it would still top my list of books I’d recommend from this past year. Even beyond the powerful treatment of its content (which grapples with violence against women in the pages of the Old Testament), I loved this book for how it engaged with scripture. For the care and respect it gave the living text — the attention it paid to the mechanics of syntax and structure. Trible is a scholar who understands that respecting a text means questioning it, wrestling with it, demanding answers of it — and then trusting it to speak for itself.

Runner up: Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words. A unique and powerful exploration of language, exile, and identity. And Sigrid Undset’s Stages on the RoadA fairly uneven collection of essays, yet it has stayed with me in the subsequent weeks and months.

Most Read Author

Stephen King with the first four books of his Dark Tower series and Marrisa Meyer with her Lunar Chronicles (though, in pages read, Stephen King wins out by far).

Runners up: Pierce Brown with his Red Rising trilogy and Jan Karon with the first three books of her Mitford series.

Worst Read

Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely DiscipleThough I prefer avoiding this category whenever possible, I’m afraid Roose’s book earned it. While the premise (a Brown University student spending a semester undercover at Liberty University) might be intriguing, Roose (or perhaps Liberty) does no justice to the complexities of faith or culture that such an exchange should elucidate. There are many people I deeply respect who recommend this book, but I personally found it maddening and not enlightening. And couldn’t help feeling that Roose (and perhaps Liberty) had utterly missed the point.

You can find a complete list of my year’s reading here or follow me on Goodreads for an up-to-date record of my reading, rants, and reviews.

Okay, your turn: What were the best books you read in 2018? What did you love about them? Any reading goals for 2019? 

The Sparrow | Words of Wednesday

And deeper, in a place she rarely inspected, there was a part of her that wanted to believe as Emilio seemed to believe, that God was in the universe, making sense of things. –Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow


I was introduced to the science fiction novel The Sparrow through Krista Tippett’s podcast, On Being. An account of a Jesuit mission to “know and love God’s other children” (the ones not inhabiting Earth), the story — written by a life-long scientist, former atheist, and later-life convert to Judaism — deeply intrigued me.

I’ve been immersed in The Sparrow‘s world for about a week now, and though I’ve yet to reach the end, I already know that I would highly recommend it. Whether you’re interested in sci-fi, or faith, or just a really well-crafted narrative, this book is for you.

And, yet, I don’t recommend it lightly. Whatever the above quote may imply, this is one of the most uncompromising explorations of devastation I have encountered. It is, in its way, a subtle, deeply original, and utterly un-didactic retelling of the Old Testament book of Job. What does one do when it is God who destroys one’s faith? God, as Emilio tells us, who breaks one’s heart? 

Whatever peace I’ve made with the presence of suffering in the world (a peace predicated entirely on the incarnational presence of a God who enters into that suffering — wearing it like skin — in all times, and all places), this text (more, perhaps, than any other) has forced me to wrestle again with who God is and what God wants from us. How to reconcile the paradoxes of Old and New Testaments — of a God who both gives life and takes that life away.

And this I think is the point — these questions, this wrestling — and why I can declare Russell successful, regardless of where she takes the narrative from here. Whether she concludes with consolation, or answers, or only with silence, she has forced us to look again, question again, wrestle again. To acknowledge that we are mortal and dust, and God is mystery, vaster and deeper than any expanse of space, or time, or unknowable universe. 

And so, as Marc, one of the book’s priests, declares, “Perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic, unable to know the unknowable.” And yet, he continues, “The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds.” 

So, with Job and Jacob and all the patriarchs of old, we must keep wrestling, keep questioning, till we meet God face-to-face, receive our true names, and hold our hands over our mouths. 

“And then,” Marc finishes, “we shall dance with God.” 

Lilac Breasted Roller in Flight (Naibosho Conservancy, Kenya)

You can listen to the On Being episode that first inspired me here

 

A Year in Books (2017)

This was a slightly strange reading year. A year where most of my fiction reads were “just for fun” and many of my nonfiction choices were informative rather than literary.

I read for entertainment, I read for understanding, and I read for spiritual insight — but only rarely did I read for literary merit. I did, however, finally add Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to my “books read” list. And though much of this year’s fiction will prove — is already proving — forgettable, I am hopeful that most of the year’s nonfiction will stick with me into the future.

Here are some of the highlights:

Best “Just Fun” Book

death in kenyaM.M. Kaye’s Death in Kenya. Yes, I loved this book because of the setting. Loved it because of how right it gets that setting. Like Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, this is wonderfully evocative of a moment in British history that is no more. Of a world that ceased to be. And yes, that world is unwaveringly problematic. But I still loved the glimpse.

Runners up: Though I read (and enjoyed) several others in this category, none really survived the test of even months’ worth of time. The one that came closest was A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro.

Best Audiobook

mindfulnessThich Nhat Hanh’s The Art of Mindful Living: How to Bring Love, Compassion, and Inner Peace Into Your Daily Life. Many of my nonfiction reads this year were consumed via an audiobook format, and many were excellent, but this was excellent because it was audio. Not precisely a book, it was a recording of Thich Nhat Hanh teaching on meditation, peace, fulfillment, love, and the Kingdom of Heaven — and his wisdom, compassion, and humor are embodied in the sweet, soft rhythms of his voice.

Runner up: Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly EverythingFascinating, mind-boggling, and so well read.

Best Fictionhomegoing

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. A beautifully crafted narrative about history and identity and the interwoven shape of our lives.

Runners up: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (which reminds one of the glory and power of books) and Wonder by R.J. Palacio.

Most Read Author

George R.R. Martin with five books — or, perhaps more significantly, nearly 5,000 pages.

Runner up: Ursula K. Le Guin with three books and just barely 400 pages — for Le Guin is a master of brevity, a gift sorely underrated and rare.

rendezvousBest Sci-fi

Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. Mystery, wonder, awe, exploration, and discovery — everything great sci-fi should entail. Once again, Clarke does not disappoint.

Runners up: Le Guin’s City of Illusions and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes — which, let’s be honest, is definitely fantasy and not sci-fi. But whatev.

Best Non-fictionblue nights

Joan Didion’s Blue NightsThis was probably the best read of the year, regardless of genre. Certainly the most beautiful. A poignant reflection on children, aging, identity, loss, and love.

Runners up: Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk. Rainer Maria Wilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. C.S. Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. All three are books to feed the soul.

Best Non-prose

This is totally cheating, because I only read one collection of poetry this year, but Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s Drawn to the Light was so beautiful I have to include it here.

Book I Most Wish I Could Make You Read

Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How They Can Change the World and Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself. Taken together, these two books changed my perspective on how we should teach, learn, and live.

You can find a complete list of my year’s reading here.

A Year in Books (2016)

I realize that I am lagging terribly behind in updating anyone on my life.  Failing to post for half a year is a woeful state of affairs — and one that I hardly have an excuse for (especially since I was writing an average of 1,000 words daily for a few of those months). Regardless, it’s 2017, the U.S. has a new president, a new semester has begun, and it’s time to take stalk of the year’s reading.

Having read 44 books and 12,441 pages (which averages out to more than 1,000 pages a month — not quite sure how I pulled that off), I would say that 2016, when measured in reading, can be counted a success.  A success kickstarted by the first book of the year (which, at 795 pages, was also the longest): The Brothers Karamazov (a quiet Christmas in Budapest, it turns out, is just what a reader needs).

This was the year I crossed a few important must-reads off the list (The Brothers Karamazov, The Silmarillion, and Beloved, along with Eloise Montgomery’s Emily series, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, and more), re-read a few favorites (mostly for the Inklings class I co-taught this past fall), and discovered, rather inexplicably, classic sci-fi (and what a discovery it was!).  All in all, not a bad year.

Here are some of the highlights:

Best “Just Fun” Book

night-trainElizabeth Peters’ Night Train to Memphis.  No, this is in no way as good as Peters’ Amelia Peabody novels.  However, it was delightful in its own right (and it doesn’t hurt that it’s dotted with Peabody references for those in the know).

Runners up: Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Moorchild (which has been on my to-read list forever; she’s been a favorite author since I was in grade-school) and Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan (loaned and recommend by one of my students).

Best Nonfiction and Best Audiobook

becoming-wiseKrista Tippett’s Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.  As I wrote on Goodreads, one of the wisest, most hopeful, and most inspiring books I’ve read in a long time.  I highly recommend the audio version, which is peppered with excerpts from her podcast interviews. A brave and beautiful book.

Runners up (nonfiction): An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor (a simple and beautiful reminder of the sacredness of our own lives, our own living) and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (an AP Lang requirement, but thought-provoking and worth the read).

Runner up (audiobook): Brene Brown’s Men, Women, and Worthiness: The Experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough.  I listened to many excellent audiobooks this year, but Brown’s voice, speaking her own words, ultimately makes this a cut above the rest.

silmarillionBest Fiction

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.  Hands down one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.

Runner up: Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter.  A gentle, beautiful book about living well.

Most Read Author

blackLloyd Alexander, with 5.  His Chronicles of Prydain were the highlight of spring break.

Runner up: Ursula K. Le Guin, with 4.  Her Annals of the Western Shore were the highlight of the fall.

placeBest Re-Read

Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion.  Almost a decade since my first read-through, and his books still burn.

Runner up: Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings.  The book that first introduced me to the Inklings as a community (rather than a disconnected handful of beloved writers).  It was, and is, love at first sight.

hyperionBest Sci-fi

As my most read genre this year, it seemed only fair to give this its own category.  My favorite single piece would have to be Hyperion by Dan Simmons.  Atmospheric, terrifying, and littered with literary references. Lovely (though I didn’t care for the sequel).

Runners up: Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (which, as a collection of interconnected short stories, was not what I was expecting but was far more perfect) or anything by Arthur C. Clarke, whose work has yet to disappoint — specifically, 2001: A Space Odyssey is actually as good as it’s cracked up to be.

You can find a more complete list of my year’s reading here.