I love books, real books, all sizes and shapes of books on all manner of subjects. I love the heft of them, the aroma, the “come hither” covers, the print styles. I’m always quoting from books, so I’ve created a page so that others can learn about them.
♥ Pilgrimage, My Search for the Real Pope Francis, by Mark K. Shriver. This is the moving story of two journeys, one by Jorge Mario Bergoglio and one by Mark K. Shriver. The more Shriver learns about Bergoglio (who will one day be the first Jesuit pope), the more he is intrigued by a new version of Catholicism. Bergoglio’s journey from Italy to Argentina to Rome by way of Ignatius of Loyola as well as a downfall in his beloved Jesuit community parallels Shriver’s journey from devout Catholicism to embarrassment over his church’s failings to renewed trust and faith in the God of hope. Along the way we are privy to rich details from each man’s life, including grandmothers named Rosa and Rose whose grounded faith was a life-long influence on each man. Especially interesting to those of us who have been blessed by Ignatius of Loyola is the detailed presentation of the Jesuit road to spiritual formation and the powerful impact of Ignatius’ profound observation: “Love ought to show itself more by deeds than by words.” God’s love and mercy for each person were foundation and the heart of this “compassionate priest with a common touch” who became Pope Francis. And this pope’s journey changed the life of his biographer.
♥ Sing For Your Life, A Story of Race, Music, and Family by Daniel Bergner. Ryan Speedo Green is not your typical opera singer. His father left the family when he was a young child. His mother was verbally and physically abusive. He nearly went mad while incarcerated in juvenile detention. In addition, he is an African-American, a rare entity in the rigidly traditional world of opera. But as award-winning literary journalist sensitively describes, Ryan used music, a gift he didn’t know he had until he worked with coaches and teachers, to rise above it all. This is an important book for our time. It takes us into the desperate world of a poor and horribly dysfunctional family. It details the ravages of racism and white privilege. It gives an insiders’ view of the difficulties of singing operatic music; one reviewer says that the passages on opera “read like superb sports writing.” But most of all, it tells the story of a fascinating young man who found a way to hope, despite all the forces working against him, and triumph in a way he never would have dreamed possible.
♥ America’s Original Sin, Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, by Jim Wallis. What is the difference between racism and white bias or white privilege? Jim Wallis says that not all white people in America are racists, but no white Americans can escape white privilege. I agree. This widely acclaimed book on racism in America is a must read for all Christians! Even if we have fought hard against racism, we often do not understand our own subconscious bias. Wallis tells us that “We must look more deeply into our inner selves, which is a practice people of faith and moral conscience are rightly expected to do. . . Awareness of our biases, personal introspection, empathy, and retraining of our ways of thinking are necessary to take the first steps toward the real and needed changes in our personal and public lives.” Wallis’ passionate and personal battle against racism and white privilege is convicting. His call to the Church to be the Church in this time of racial injustice is convincing. His ideas for living out our true mission in love are inspiriting. Read this book! Better yet, form a group to read it together. Even better, make sure that group has black, brown, and white faces.
♥ Long Way Gone, by Charles Martin. I am usually not a fan of what is described as “Christian fiction.” It is too saccharine for me, the writing is sometimes less than stellar, and the plotting is predictable. However, I have found a new niche in religious fiction: “faith-based fiction” and a new author (to me) who is a superb writer of beautiful prose, who creates memorable characters and understands the power of story. Long Way Gone, the latest of several novels by Charles Martin, is a story of redemption and love lost and found again. The book is loosely based on the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son and beautifully demonstrates that you can never be too far gone to return to those who love you – especially God. Held together by a musical thread, this is the story of a deep bond between father and son and a love story that is carefully realized. A bonus feature at the end of the book is a brilliant recounting of the parable of the Prodigal Son and the best “sermon” I have ever heard on the power of God’s love for each person, no matter how far they drift from Him. This book will stretch you, but if you stay with it you will be profoundly moved.
♥ small great things, by Jodi Picoult. Jodi Picoult has written 22 novels for adults. All of them are beautifully sensitive descriptions of the complexities of human relationships. I think this is her best book yet! The book cover describes it has having “unflinching insights, richly layered characters, and a page-turning plot with a gripping moral dilemma at its heart.” All of that is true! The best thing about the book for me it is that it is perfectly positioned to deal with some of the major issues of our time – brought to the spotlight by news coverage and the 2016 Presidential campaign – in wonderfully human tones. The book’s 400 pages may seem daunting, but once you get to know the characters you will be hooked and the pages will fly by. Picoult tackles racism, white privilege, white power groups, and interracial friendship. It’s a powerful story with great characters (including an unforgettable young man caught up in the white power movement), but more importantly it speaks to subjects that are so timely and so need to be talked about out loud. The book begins with a quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” This book brings that opinion to life. I STRONGLY recommend this important book.
♥ Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. Whether you love science, are confused by science, or hate science, Lab Girl is the book for you. Dr. Hope Jahren is as successful with her hybrid first book as she is in her geobiology lab. In addition to be an honored biologist, she is a beautiful and inspiring writer. This book is first of all a memoir of the life of a female scientist who grew up accompanying her scientist/professor father nearly every week night in his lab, playing beneath the lab benches until she was tall enough to play on them. But the story of her life is also interspersed with the stories of seeds, roots, leaves, wood, and blossoms as well as a passionate lesson on the inter-relationship of trees and their inter-relationship us. (Look for a more complete review in the post Lab Girl in the blog itself.) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
♥ I Should Be Dead, My Life Surviving Politics, TV, and Addiction, by Bob Beckel with John David Mann. In the manner of the classic autobiography, Born Again by Charles Colson, Bob Beckel, political operative extraordinaire and popular TV political commentator, describes his life as a “survivor” of childhood abuse, including exposure to both parents’ alcoholism, and how he finally found sobriety after a desert experience with God. Packed with tales of his double life as a Washington success story by day (becoming the youngest-ever Deputy Assistant Secretary of State) and a self-destructive alcoholic by night, parts of this book will horrify you and parts will inspire you. This is a story of how the magnitude of God’s grace and the selflessness of a loyal Christian friend rescued Bob in his darkest hour – a great tale of how the devil and the Lord fight for a man’s life.
♥ When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. Paul Kalanithi was a 36-year old neurosurgeon when he learned he had Stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was the patient struggling to live. As a medical student, a chief resident, and a neuroscientist, Kalanithi was obsessed with learning about what makes a virtuous and meaningful life. As he faced his own death, he had to deal with what makes life worth living in the face of death. What does you do when the future you have devoted years of training for is no longer possible? What does it mean to have a child whose father will die before she ever knows him? How do we reconcile scientific theory with the central values of Christianity – sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness? (He finds a way). This book is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenges of facing death, the and the relationships between doctor and patient. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
♥ On My Own, By Diane Rehm. Diane Rehm, long-time host of her own show on NPR, writes a moving story of her difficult but love-filled marriage, the slow decline and difficult death of her husband, John, and her struggle to reconstruct her life without him. John’s unnecessarily extended death spurred Diane to become an advocate of the right to die. This book is filled with fascinating details of the careers of both of these well-known couple. As practical as it is inspiring, it will be a help to the recently bereaved and provide hope as we deal with our own approaching end of life issues and experiences.
♥ The Good Book, Writers Reflect on Favorite Bible Passages. This astonishing book is filled with essays by 32 essayists, novelists, media figures and social activists. Some are Christians, some are Jews, some are atheists or agnostics; each has an interesting and unique perspective on the Bible passage he or she has chosen. You will read with wide eyes the claim by an Orthodox Jew who left the fold that the Serpent in the Garden of Eden and Adam were twin brothers. You will walk through a family’s joy and sorrow as they live out Ruth’s claim, “Your people will be my people.” You will learn from a thought-provoking parsing of the 23rd Psalm. You will learn be awed by Cokie and Steve Roberts’ interfaith marriage and the dedication of a Catholic mother to teach her children about their Jewish roots. Kathleen Norris will give you insights from the desert travels of the Hebrews. You will thrill to the first person story of the beloved disciple as he writes the first chapter of his book about Jesus. This unusual and diverse book will give you much to ponder and enjoy.
♥ Land of Careful Shadows, by Suzanne Chazin. This is not a novel you would expect to find in a spiritual formation blog. However, while not specifically Christian, it speaks to the values that Jesus taught us: forgiveness, compassion, caring for the least of these, community, and love. Lee Child, a famous suspense author says, “This is everything a great suspense novel should be – but it hit the heart, too, not just the pulse, the people whom you come to care about.” Many of those people are undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala trying to make a life in America.
The author, Suzanne Chazin, has done her research! She weaves the details of the horrific journeys and fear-filled lives of people just like you and me: fathers who want to take care of their children, high-school seniors who want to go to college, children who lose their parents, white-privileged police officers, people who love their homeland but are not safe there, community officials who put every immigrant in one category: unwanted. If you want an honest look at the lives of the people who are being demeaned in the headlines every day plus beautiful writing, plus a riveting plot, this book is for you.
♥ The Nightingale, By Kristin Hannah. With courage, grace and powerful insight, Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of WWII and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s role in the French resistance. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France. This is a beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. The writing is beautiful, the story is heartbreaking, and the message is sorely needed in 2016. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
♥ Jesus CEO, by Laurie Beth Jones. Christians have studied many facets of the life of Jesus. In this classic book of the 90’s, Jesus CEO, Laurie Beth Jones writes about Jesus as a leader of a team, the disciples, and the “self-mastery, action, and relationship skills that Jesus used to train and motivate his team.” She promises that his style can be applied to any “business, service or endeavor that depends on more than one person to accomplish a goal and can be implemented by anyone who dares.”
Using the terms of modern business, she points out how Jesus developed a staff from a group that came from illiteracy, questionable backgrounds, fractious feelings and momentary cowardice.” Here are some chapter titles: He Stuck to His Mission; He had Internal Anchors, He Saw Things Differently, He was Keenly Aware of His Resources, He Gave Them a vision of Something Larger than Themselves, He Wanted to Take Everyone to the Top, He Loved them to the End.
This is an endlessly creative look at how we can become leaders whose goals are “to build up, not to tear down; to nurture, not to exploit, to undergird and enhance, rather than to dominate.” Highly Recommended – even for devotional reading.
♥ Inside the O’Briens, by Lisa Genova. Any novel by Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist, serves up a treasure of information about the issue she is writing about as well as a warm story about family relationships and how they teeter on the edge but most often survive a family crisis. Still Alice, a self-published debut novel now a compelling movie, is about a college professor who struggles with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Love Anthony is a fascinating look at raising and loving an autistic child. Genova’s latest book, Inside the O’Briens describes how a Boston family comes to grips with the father’s diagnosis of Huntington’s disease and with the hereditary factor of this grim illness that strikes people down in the prime of life.
♥ Learning to Fall, The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, by Philip Simmons, is a collection of beautifully written, tightly constructed, funny, and profound essays about facing loss. Simmons was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 35 and lived ten years with the disease. . The book was self-published and sold 3,000 copies before being picked up by Bantam Books and published in paper back just six months before his death. He and his family moved from the Midwest to New Hampshire when he could no longer work as a college professor.
The book was the winner of the 2002 Books for a Better Life Award for Best Spiritual Book. Simmons draws on his deep interest and broad background in spirituality and world religions, along with the wisdom of philosophers, poets, physicists, farmers to speak to the problem of living with death and loss, Reviewers use words such as generous, genuine, inspirational, beautifully realized, brilliant, earthy, eloquent to describe this book. I love how the Rev. Dr. Leroy Rouner of Boston University speaks about it: “Learning to Fall is a wonderfully open – arms flung wide, running to meet the new day – affirmation of life in the face of impending death. This is a book for all those who know that life is hard, but may have forgotten that it is also full of marvelous grace.” This book is for everyone who is learning how to face his or her own “imperfect life” with grace and joy. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
♥ Eternal Living, Reflections on Dallas Willard’s Teaching on Faith and Formation, edited by Gary W. Moon with contributions by John Ortberg, Jane Willard, Richard J. Foster, James Bryan Smith, J.P. Moreland and others. This book is a must-read for anyone whose life has been touched by the philosophy, theology, and humanity of Dallas Willard, who passed into the Kingdom Eternal in May, 2013. Those of us who came upon Dallas through the Apprentice Program may not realize that he was a world-class philosopher as well as a warm friend to many.
This story of a life-well lived in the Kingdom of God will make you laugh, cry, and thank God for the blessings this friend of Jesus brought to our world.
♥ Called, My Journey to C.S. Lewis’s House and Back Again, by Ryan J. Pemberton. C.S. Lewis fans will love this book. Its many stories of Lewis’ writings, relationships, and quirks will make the man come alive to you (e.g Lewis and his brother emptied their pipe ashes on to the rug of their “common room,” joking that the ash kept the moths away and helped protect the rug.” But this book is also about a young man’s journey to find and verify his calling, and as such has a lot to tell us about what it means to be called by the loving God and to be obedient to that call. The book is beautifully written, heart wrenching, inspiring, honest and brave and a testament to the power of writing as a calling.