Book Reviews: by J. Michael Smith, 2021-23

Books Read in February-March 2023

Barrie, James M.  Peter Pan (or Peter and Wendy), novel, children

Blau, Jessica Anya, Mary Jane (novel, gentle, coming of age, 1970s)

Feeney, Alice, Rock, Paper, Scissors (novel, murder mystery)  

Harding, Paul Tinkers, (novel)

Knott, Stephen F., Coming to Terms with John F. Kennedy (presidential biography, history)

Low, Shari, One Day Last Summer (novel, romance)

Rilke, Rainer Maria, Letters to a Young Poet, (short essays on solitude, creativity, love, sexuality)

Specht, Robert Tisha: The True Love Story of A Young Teacher in the Alaskan Wilderness. (biography, Alaska in the 1920s, young teachers)

Stringfellow, William, A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning (memoir, theology, death)

Woods, Stuart, The Run (Will Lee #5) (political novel, crime

Barrie, James M.  Peter Pan (or Peter and Wendy), novel, children

James Barrie entertains all ages.  Children are swept up in the imagination and suspense of his story.  Adults notice Barrie’s droll sense of humor and lively wit.  This classic was originally written as a play in 1904 and expanded into the novel in 1911.  The play has been adapted for cartoons, movies, and other stage presentations.  The novel gives the reader time to imagine, feel, and ponder.  And there is much to ponder:  childhood, growing up, not wanting to grow up, death, parenthood, villainy, violence, dogs…  

A few places in the novel may leave the reader uncomfortable, particularly the stereotypes of American Indians.  But this is something we encounter in all literature written prior to our more recent social awakenings, and the reader has to decide how to proceed.

Barrie was born in 1860 in Scotland, and was a famous writer of plays and novels in his day.  Some interesting factoids about Barrie:  he was short (5-3), unhappily married and then divorced, childless but loved children, the guardian of a family of children whose parents had died—the Llewellyn Davies family, familiar with childhood death, politically involved in supporting free speech, owner of a St. Bernard, and teller of stories to children.  His love of children, suspect in today’s world, was evidently above board, as one Nicolas Llewellyn Davis, one of the children raised by Barrie, later wrote:  “I don’t believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced a stirring in the undergrowth for anyone, man, woman, or child.  He was an innocent, which was why he could write Peter Pan.” (quoted in Andrew Birken’s JM Barrie and the Lost Boys.

Barrie died in 1937.  His Peter Pan is both a joy and a window of insight into childhood psychology.

Blau, Jessica Anya, Mary Jane (novel, gentle, coming of age, 1970s)

It is 1975 and Mary Jane, 15, has just been hired as a summer nanny to take care of four-year-old Izzy Cone. She walks every day from her home to Izzy’s, to take care of the child while Izzy’s father, a psychiatrist, and her mother go about their business.  The father sees clients in the barn out back.  It will be Mary Jane’s coming-of-age summer, as she enters a household very different from her own.  Izzy’s parents are politically liberal, disorganized, free-spirited, unrestrained, pot-smoking…and very kind and friendly.  Mary Jane is also an only child.  Her parents missed the 1960s.  They are very conservative, man-head-of-the-household, subservient wife, obedient child, rigid in their sex roles, dinner at the same time every night, status-conscious Presbyterians, anti-black and anti-Jew.  

Mary Jane arrives at the Cone household to discover another couple living there for the summer, a drug-addicted rock star and his famous wife.  We get to see her navigate the distance between the two cultures which existed in 1975, prior to internet and the ready information that exists today for teenagers.  In other words, she can’t just google the things that confuse her.

The novel is thoughtful, humorous, suspenseful, and true to life.  Izzy and Mary Jane capture not only each other’s hearts, but the readers as well.  A delightful read.

Feeney, Alice, Rock, Paper, Scissors (novel, murder mystery)  

It takes the whole book to get to the actual murder.  But we know all along it’s going to happen.  We just don’t know until the end who gets murdered and who did the murdering.  Along the way, Feeney plays with our minds by upsetting assumptions we make.  She sets us up to make those assumptions, then pulls the rug out from under us, several times.  It is possible some readers may feel jerked around by the author, but I handled it all right, and forgave her for toying around, because her story was so interesting.

Adam and Amelia find their marriage is on the rocks.  And so Amelia, in response to a “weekend away” she wins in a raffle, insists that Adam and she head to Blackwater Chapel in Scotland to sort things out. Her raffle prize, however, is a hoax.  They have been tricked into traveling to this isolated place, and we are told that one of them will not make it back home to London.  

We are also introduced to a series of letters:  one the wife wrote each year on their wedding anniversary.  Thus we follow a ten-year marriage in its ups and downs.  And we learn of the lies that both husband and wife tell over time to each other.

Part way through the novel we are introduced to two more significant characters:  a reclusive writer of crime novels and a woman named Robin, who shows up during the weekend at Blackwater Chapel.  

Feeney tells a good story and does it with interesting craft.

Harding, Paul Tinkers, (novel)

Harding’s novel moves back and forth between three characters: George, his father Howard, and Howard’s father–a Methodist minister. The setting of the novel is the death of each one, making this reading a melancholy experience. It begins with George’s last few days. The family is gathered around his bed as he moves in and out of consciousness. When experiencing the present, he is often confused and undergoing hallucinations. But then his memories become clear, and we have vignettes of his work as a clock repairer, a tinkerer, and moments with his own father.

We are also taken into Howard’s experiences and memories. Howard suffered epilepsy and his first wife bullied him into leaving home or being permanently put in an insane asylum. As we enter Howard’s world, we also move between moments of clarity and moments of chaotic confusion, as the author dips us into the surreal experience of an epileptic episode. Howard is someone who spends much of his early life outside, and Harding is brilliant in his descriptions of nature, his language elevated to the realm of the poetic. Howard escapes from being committed to the asylum and heads to Philadelphia where he has a more pleasant marriage to a second wife.

Howard’s father, a Methodist minister, is a brilliant man who suffers from early onset dementia. Again, as we enter his world, the author moves us back and forth between brilliant prophet clarity and muddled disorientation.

Harding is a brilliant writer. The book won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2010. But I struggled my way through it for two reasons: the heaviness of its melancholy mood and the tortuous descriptions of three men’s utter collapse of mental clarity. The graphic, front row witness to their mental breakdowns was hard to witness.

Knott, Stephen F., Coming to Terms with John F. Kennedy (presidential biography, history)

John Kennedy is one of our most elusive presidents, when it comes to history and biography.  This is because he remained “political” long after his assassination:  two of his brothers later ran for president and numerous other friends and relatives used their connections with him for political, financial, and personal gain.  Just as Kennedy’s family and friends had motive to scrub his flaws and idolize him, so opponents of the Kennedy phenomena had reason to demonize him and distort his skills and accomplishments.  Thus, the real Kennedy seldom appears in any biographies about him.  (To an extent, this is also true about Nixon and Reagan.)  Added to the problem of “Kennedy historiography” is his deplorable sexual incontinence, including acts of rape and sex with underage women.  At the time, his sexual behavior was kept under wraps and dismissed as “boys will be boys.”  But in 2023, it’s important to call his behavior what it was:  abusive and unjust.  In this facet of his life, Kennedy’s behavior was inexcusable.  In this regard, historians struggle with the same issues that present themselves in such presidents as Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson—and their slaveholding.  

But the role of the historian is different from that of the preacher or moralist.  While the historian must acknowledge the full truth of historical characters, including flaws and contemporary political successes, the historian must also seek to understand the influence a figure has on history.  Stephen Knott is an excellent historian.

Knott began life as a Kennedy acolyte, worked at the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, became a Reagan Democrat, a Republican, and then left the Republican party because of Trump.  He noticed both the qualities of John Kennedy, the flaws, the interference of the Kennedy family when it came to historical documentation and research, and the difficulty of trying to figure out what Kennedy would have done had he lived.  While feeling both emotionally attached and repulsed by Kennedy, Knott is self-aware and has disciplined himself to keep moving toward objectivity in his research and conclusions.  

The author selects several topics to examine the Kennedy presidency:  the Kennedy administration’s foreign policy in regard to the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Vietnam; Civil Rights, the assassination; the quest to go to the moon; his womanizing, and the Kennedy legacy.  By limiting himself to these specific areas, Knott is able to give us a clearer picture of John Kennedy and his importance in shaping the direction of the United States and the world in the early 60s.  

Knott also gives a brief critique of other Kennedy biographies, which is helpful to consult before spending the money or time on them.

Like two other assassinated presidents (Lincoln and Garfield) we are left with huge “What if…” questions.  What if Kennedy had lived?  Would Civil Rights legislation have passed? Would he have kept us out of Vietnam?  Would he and Khrushchev reached an agreement on nuclear disarmament?  Would Cuba have come back under U.S. control?  Kennedy’s statements during his presidency were ambiguous enough that no one knows for sure.  But Knott points out that Kennedy was both a strategist and a tactician.  As a strategist, he kept his end goals secret.  His tactics were highly political, and often used to throw off his opponents.  Knott looks to Kennedy’s rhetoric to distinguish the two.  He also looks backward to see the end results of situations that worked themselves to a conclusion during Kennedy’s presidency—to determine the strategy—the end goal.  Knott’s conclusion:  Kennedy was anti-war, pro-civil rights, and pro-nuclear disarmament—even though there are actions and statements to the contrary.  

Knott also points out that Kennedy was a vociferous reader and lifelong learner, and that his views changed the more he learned.  This seems to be the case when it comes to Civil Rights, as Kennedy become more favorable to the movement as his presidency went on.  Knott also points out that Kennedy was a skilled politician and did not get too far out ahead of the electorate, even though he looked for opportunities to educate and change people’s minds.  His sense of humor and his quick wit were real.  

Had it not been for those trying to whitewash his reputation after his death, or those trying to destroy it, we would have a better sense of the man’s importance and place in American history, including his flaws of character.

Low, Shari, One Day Last Summer (novel, romance)

On a flight from London to St. Lucia, four people who are strangers to each other get seated in the same row.  In the course of the nine-hour flight, their lives become entangled more than any of them could have imagined.

Bernadette, 54, is a widow and a nurse, with a heart for women who have been abused.  Her abusive ex-husband booked a two-week vacation in St. Lucia for the two of them, without asking Bernadette, hoping to manipulate her into reconciliation.  But she was resolute to never be involved with the man again.  When he dropped dead of a heart attack, she took the ticket and went on the trip by herself.

Tadgh, 28, is on his way to his wedding in St. Lucia, traveling with his brother and another friend.  His bride-to-be, Cheryl, will meet them there.  But before boarding the plane, he accidently sees a text message on his brother’s phone that makes him think his fiancée and his brother may be having an affair.  He is in turmoil the whole trip over what to do.

Haley, 32, is married to an obnoxious physician.  On the flight over, he ditches her in order to sit by himself in first class.  He also harasses her a couple times on the trip over, something that is normal in their relationship, and she takes the blame for his behavior.

Dev is 30 and had a one-night stand with a woman named “Cheryl” earlier that week.  He was so overwhelmed by her that he is trying to find her.  The only thing she told him (not even a last name) was that she was headed to a wedding in St. Lucia for a friend.  On an impulse, he gets a ticket at the last minute to fly to St. Lucia to see if he can find her.

Shari Low’s romance novel doesn’t seem like a romance novel until the end.  Her characters are endearing and the reader is rooting for them all the way through.  The plot has suspense and the writing is well done all through the book.  It is a serious book but doesn’t have a great deal of depth, which was fine for me.  I am already in the middle of several other books that are heavy reading.  This was just the spicy read I needed in my reading diet to give me some energy and entertainment.

Rilke, Rainer Maria, Letters to a Young Poet, (short essays on solitude, creativity, love, sexuality)

For those unfamiliar, Rilke (he lived from 1775-1926) was a European poet, correspondent, essayist, and novelist (who wrote in German and French) who addressed such topics as love, sex, gender, solitude, personal fulfillment, art, God, conventional morality, and happiness.  In this book, published after his death, we read ten letters Rilke wrote to a young man (an aspiring poet) seeking advice.  Here are some of my favorite quotes:

Pp 22-23:  “Read as little as possible of literary criticism—such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are just clever word games, in which one view wins today, and tomorrow the opposite view.  Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism.  Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them.”

pp. 24-25:  “…there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing.  Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come…it comes only to those who are patient…patience is everything.”

When writing about the power of sex (pp. 25-27) Rilke refers to an author whose approach is “not quite so pure as it needs him to be.  Instead of a completely ripe and pure world of sexuality, it finds a world that is not human enough, that is only male, is heat, thunder, and restlessness, and burdened with the old prejudice and arrogance with which the male has always disfigured and burdened love.  Because he loves only as a male, and not as a human being, there is something narrow in his sexual feeling, something that seems wild, malicious, time-bound, uneternal, which diminishes his art and makes it ambiguous and doubtful.”

Pg. 33:  “If you trust Nature, in what is simple in Nature, in the small things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what I humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor:  then everything will become easier for you, more coherent, somehow more reconciling…”

Pg. 34:  “have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.  Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given you now, because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Pg. 36-37:  “It is not our acceptance (of sex) that is bad; what is bad is that most people misuse this learning and squander it and apply it as a stimulant on the tired places of their lives and as a distraction rather than as a way of gathering themselves for their highest moments.  People have made eating into something else:  a necessity on one hand, excess on the other; have muddied the clarity of this need, and all the deep simple needs in which life renews itself have become just as muddy.”

Pg. 38: “In one creative thought a thousand forgotten nights of love come to life again and fill it with majesty and exaltation.”

Pg. 42-43:  “be happy about your growth, in which of course, you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend.  Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust.”

Pg. 43:  “Avoid providing material for the drama that is always stretched tight between parents and children; it uses up much of the children’s strength and wastes the love of the elders… don’t ask for any advice from them and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”

Pp. 54-57:  “…solitude, vast inner solitude.  To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours, that is what you must attain…think of the world that you carry inside you, and call this thinking whatever you want to:  a remembering of your own childhood or a yearning toward a future of your own–only be attentive to what is arising within you, and place that above everything you perceive around you.  What is happening in your innermost self is worthy of your entire love; somehow you must find a way to work at it, and not lose too much time or too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people.”

Pg. 59:  “Have you really lost God?  Isn’t it much truer to say that you never yet possessed him?”

Pg. 63:  “…celebrate Christmas in this devout feeling, that perhaps HE needs this very anguish of yours in order to begin.”

Pg. 69:  “Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and united with another person (for what would be a union of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?)… it is first a ripening of the individual, to become something in oneself, to become world for the sake of another person, it is a great, demanding claim…”

Pg. 70-71  “Young people…fling themselves at each other when love takes hold of them, they scatter themselves, just as they are, in all their messiness, disorder, bewilderment…and what can happen then?  What can life do with this heap of half-broken things that they call their communion and that they would like to call their happiness?”

Pg. 78:  “the love that consists in this:  that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.”

Pg. 83-85:  “It seems that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we…are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us, because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing… the new presence inside us has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is… already in our bloodstream…it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad…the quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadnesses, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us…we will feel related, and that is necessary, and toward this point our development will move, little by little…”

Pg. 87:  “To speak of solitude again, it becomes clearer and clearer that…this is nothing one can choose or refrain from.  We are solitary.  We can delude ourselves about this and act as if it were not true…but how much better it is to recognize that we are not alone…”

Pg. 92-93:  “you mustn’t be frightened…if sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen, if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows moves over your hands and everything you do.  You must realize that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand will not let you fall.  Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since you…don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you…”

Pg. 93:  “sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself form what is alien, so one must simply help it be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.”

Pg. 92:  “the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses?  Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act just once with beauty and courage.  Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

Pg. 101:  “only that feeling is impure which grasps just one side of your being and thus distorts you.”

Pg. 102:  “your doubt can become a good quality if you train it.  It must become knowing, it must become criticism.  Ask it whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered, and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting.  But don’t give in.  Insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers—perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.”

Specht, Robert Tisha: The True Love Story of A Young Teacher in the Alaskan Wilderness. (biography, Alaska in the 1920s, young teachers)

Anna Hobbs headed to Alaska in 1927, just 19 years old, to teach in a one room schoolhouse in the wilderness village of Chicken.  She encountered the difficulties of weather, racism toward Alaskan natives, suspicion, politics, death, blizzards, and difficult children.  Her story, told by Robert Specht, is gripping, suspenseful, inspiring, and thoughtful.  It reminds us how much human capacity we all have, and how important it is to live resourcefully and flexibly, yet according to our convictions.  The racism will disturb modern readers, but it is important for us to see and know the realities that always have been present when cultures mix.  The book fortified me.

Stringfellow, William, A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning (memoir, theology, death)

William Stringfellow’s A Simplicity of Faith:  My Experience in Mourning is a brief memoir of the death of his companion, Anthony Towne. Stringfellow identifies himself as a Christian and sees that as his primary identity in life.  The world knew him as a lawyer, lay theologian in the Episcopal Church, and advocate for justice.  Towne was a poet and satirist.  The two met in in New York City and became companions in 1967, never identifying themselves as gay, but they certainly were a couple.  They moved to Block Island, Rhode Island, where they settled into an old house and piece of property they called Eschaton.  

Towne died, suddenly, on January 28, 1980.  Stringfellow, who himself suffered from numerous ailments, wrote this book as a reflection on Towne’s death, their life together, and his grief and mourning.  The book is vintage Stringfellow: honest, bold, spirited, sometimes losing the reader in abstract wanderings, sometimes strikingly clear.  

Reading this book bolstered my own faith and help me think through some issues that I am facing myself when it comes to leadership in the church.  Stringfellow says his vocation in life is to be a human being, nothing more and nothing less.  As a Christian, his role is to be an exemplary human being.  “And to be a Christian categorically does not mean being religious.”  (p. 126)

He muses near the end of the book (p. 133) that he may have to give up being a lawyer, “the better to be an advocate” for people being destroyed by systems, powers, and principalities.

He is frustrated with the systems, (government, church, justice, health care, etc.) and sees them as demonic plagued.  But his concept of the demonic is imaginative, not make-believe.  He wonders (pg. 104) if God hasn’t abandoned the church, since the church is so caught up with its own institutional survival that it can no longer engage in the primary enterprise of being human and proclaiming a gospel that frees others to be human.

The book deals a great deal with death and resurrection, and Stringfellow sees that we bow before death, idolize it, and thus destroy our lives with that idolatry.  

There is a brief explanation of the circus (pp. 86 ff.) where he sees the circus as the pattern for being the church.

I was at the Kirkridge, Pennsylvania, retreat center in 1981 when Stringfellow presented portions of this book to a group of us and then took questions.  Therefore, it was a great experience for me personally to remember him and to hear again his courageous and wise voice through this work.  Reading the book was reviving to my own soul. 

Woods, Stuart, The Run (Will Lee #5) (Political novel, crime)

Woods wrote seven novels with Will Lee as the primary character.  In this novel, Lee runs for president of the United States.  He not only has to fight other Democrats for the nomination, and the Republican nominee, but also fend off a right-wing nut job from Idaho who wants to kill him.  

The novel, written in 1990s, is politically dated, having been written during the Clinton impeachment period.  The theme is shallow (let’s all just meet in the center and get along with each other) and naïve of 9-11, Obama’s election, Trump’s election, and Covid.  The characters are shallow and stereotyped.  

But it’s a good read if you like politics and want to turn off your brain for a while.  I read something out of the Will Lee series anytime I’m looking for an escape, mainly because of my addiction to political stories.  It is, however, never satisfying in the end.  Political junk food.  And stale at that.

Books Read in December 2022 and January 2023

Baker, Peter, and Glasser, Susan, The Divider:  Trump in the White House, 2017-2021  (presidential biography, politics, history)

Garmus, Bonnie, Lessons in Chemistry (novel, women)

Long, Ray, The House that Madigan Built:  The Record Run of Illinois’ Velvet Hammer (history, Illinois, politics, biography)

Meacham, Jon, And There Was Light:  Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle (history, biography, Civil War, slavery, religion)

Picoult, Jodi, Wish You Were Here (novel, pandemic)

Picoult, Jodi and Boylan, Jennifer Finney, Mad Honey (novel)

Senik, Troy, A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbably Presidency of Grover Cleveland (presidential biography)

Straczynski, J. Michael, Together We Will Go:  A Road Trip to the End  (novel, suicide)

Baker, Peter, and Glasser, Susan, The Divider:  Trump in the White House, 2017-2021  (presidential biography, politics, history)

This is the third book co-authored by Baker and Glasser, a married couple, both reporters.  It covers the four years of Donald’s Trump’s presidency, and is based on hundreds of interviews, including with Donald Trump himself.  Unfortunately, much of their information comes from off the record interviews and anonymous sources, as is the case with journalists (as opposed to historians.)  The authors are clearly opinionated about Donald Trump (who isn’t?) and their negativity about him needs to be taken into account when reading the book.

But Donald Trump is a unique historical figure, in that while he is a liar (and there is plenty of evidence for that) he is also transparent and open.  No other president has left us such a trove of primary sources:  tweets, speeches, television interviews, recorded phone calls, policy decisions and reversals, personnel moves…)  The question for the reader to ask is whether Baker and Glasser’s sources gave them information consistent with the public evidence Donald Trump himself has provided.

The answer to that question is yes.  While the information coming from anonymous sources is often eye-popping, it is entirely consistent with the what Donald Trump has said and done publicly (also eye-popping.)  

While the authors do not presume to diagnose Trump’s mental health, they frequently refer to others who were alarmed about it. The book is filled with anecdotes, and reading through the book was tiring, just as it was exhausting to take in the news coming out of the White House during Trump’s presidency.  I could only take in pieces of it at a time.  Personally, it was difficult to re-live some of the narrative:  Covid, January 6, George Floyd, the staffing turn overs, the investigations, the election denials…  

But despite the opinions of the authors, and despite the challenge of re-living traumatic times, this is the most important book about the Trump presidency written so far.  It will be the job of historians, 50 years from now, to decide how it fits into the historical assessments of Trump’s tenure, but I think it will likely be instrumental in shaping our understandings and judgments at that time.

In the meantime, even those who think the authors “pile it on” will want to give careful consideration as to whether the Republican party, and the nation, really want to put this man back in the White House.

Garmus, Bonnie, Lessons in Chemistry (novel, women)

Elizabeth is a scientist, specifically, a chemist. But she doesn’t have a degree. Something, or someone always stood in the way: a dysfunctional family, attempted rape from her academic advisor, sexism that confined her to being a lab technician, stolen research, an unexpected pregnancy… She is, however, an excellent scientist. And she tries to live her life devoid of emotion and religion, two things she considers enemies of science. The result is a quirky personality, surprising dialogue, and a charmed reader. Elizabeth grows on you, surprisingly.

The one job available to her (she needs the money) is hosting an afternoon TV cooking show. She brings her liberationist personality to the show, upending everything at the TV station and stirring up women all over the country when the show gets nationally syndicated.

The author knows the 50s, the moves kept to confine women, religion, compassion, empathy… and dogs. Yes, there is a fascinating dog in the novel. Don’t miss it.

Long, Ray, The House that Madigan Built:  The Record Run of Illinois’ Velvet Hammer (history, Illinois, politics, biography)

Long, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, reminds us of what old-fashioned journalism is all about.  As an investigative reporter, he has been covering Mike Madigan for decades.  This book gives us a fair but tough look at the man who was Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives for 36 out of 38 years (the longest serving leader of a legislative body in the history of the United States.)  He was speaker from 1983-1995 and 1997-2021.  

Madigan is currently facing federal charges for racketeering.  Long’s book is a helpful primer as we watch the news to see how his case unfolds in the next couple years.

The book covers Madigan’s entrance into politics, he rise to the Speaker position, his effectiveness as a Chicago-style politician, and his fund-raising success.  Chapters include relationships he had with various Illinois governors, two of whom went to prison.  They also include insight into his daughter’s time as Illinois Attorney General.  The last part of the book covers the unraveling of Madigan’s power as the #MeToo movement exposed ways he covered for a number of his aids and the pay-to-play deals he made under the table for decades, including a major bribery scheme with CommEd (the giant utility company serving Chicago.) 

Long is fair and specific in this book, and even though Madigan has been a secretive and tight-lipped operator for years, we get interesting glimpses into both his corruption and his political skill.  This is a great read for those who have been somewhat paying attention to Illinois politics, and especially to those of us who have lived through the stories recounted here.

Meacham, Jon, And There Was Light:  Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle (history, biography, Civil War, slavery, religion)

The story of Abraham Lincoln never grows old.  And as each successive author takes up the pen, we are more often than not edified by another perspective on our 16th president.  Meacham’s story includes a well told biography of Lincoln and throughout addresses the religious and moral maturing of Lincoln, as prompted and influenced by the events and challenges of his life.  

The biography is told at a good pace, with concrete details.  The story never got bogged down.  By the end of the book, I felt grief at Lincoln’s death, and grief for our country, as though it was just yesterday.  The loss of Lincoln’s waxing wisdom and moral light still affects us today, and I wonder if his leadership during reconstruction would have helped us navigate racism better than we have.  

Meacham’s book excels in helping us see both the “political Lincoln” and the “moral Lincoln” working in tandem.  His moral understanding of race and slavery was almost always much higher than the political ground he staked.  He was a consummate politician, and played the political long game to reach his moral convictions.  His political positions were calculated to keep the country moving morally forward, even though they were seldom satisfying to those whose prophetic voices were clear and compelling.  Meacham asserts that Lincoln’s political habits were instrumental to eliminating slavery at the end of the Civil War.  Meacham also points out, from the writings of Lincoln, that by the end of the Civil War, he was also beginning to grapple with other manifestations of racism, such as voter suppression and citizenship.  Meacham’s observation was that Lincoln’s morality was a work in progress; had he lived, we would have seen much more movement in Lincoln’s understanding of racial justice and equality.

Meacham also traces the various religious experiences of Abraham Lincoln.  Even though he was never a member of a church, he read the King James Bible vociferously, and he attended religious services faithfully.  He tended to take a pass on some of the deeper issues of theology, such as theories about the Trinity.  But he was enamored of Jesus’ teachings, and he often thought about the nature of God, the will of God, the hand of God in history, and the afterlife.

Meacham’s book belongs to the top ten of the 16,000 plus books about Lincoln—an excellent writer sharing a fascinating subject with us.   

Picoult, Jodi, Wish You Were Here (novel, pandemic)

This is the first novel I’ve read that explores and probes the psychological and social effects of the covid pandemic. It threw me a bit, and pushed me to relive some of those traumatic experiences, anxieties and terrors that were all around us. It also brought up unprocessed grief at all of the ordinary things we lost during that time.

Part of the novel made me angry, as Picoult throws us a curve part way through. I usually don’t mind a surprise in a story, but the one in this novel disoriented me and was frustrating. It took me a while together adjusted. I won’t spoil the story for those who haven’t read it, but when I pick out a novel, I like certain genres, and it seemed like Picoult switched genres on me without my permission or assent.

I did, however, adjust as the second half of the novel unfolded.

The protagonist, Diana, has her life all planned out. The novel traces her struggles as her plans are stripped away from her. We get to know Diana in depth, through her relationships with her parents, her dreams, her fiancé, her emails and postcards, her love of art, her friends, and her sense of vocation. We get to see her go deep inside herself and struggle for pathways forward when she encounters obstacles to her plans.

I found the book well grounded, historically and psychologically. And I look forward to other good novels helping us begin working through the effect that the pandemic has had on us.

Picoult, Jodi and Boylan, Jennifer Finney, Mad Honey (novel)

The novel begins with a teenager’s shocking death and the arrest of her boyfriend, who is accused of her murder.  On one level, it is a suspenseful courtroom drama, as we are never sure if he will be found guilty (until the end,) if he was guilty (until the end,) or if the whole death was an accident (until the end.)  

The story is told through two first-person points of view, alternating chapter by chapter throughout the novel, Olivia and Lily.  Lily is the teenager who was killed at the beginning of the plot.  But in flashbacks, we hear her telling us about her life and its struggles, her escapes and her efforts to put her past behind her.  She tells us about her sexuality, her troubles in school, her relationships with her parents, her falling in love with Asher (the boy accused of her murder,) and the ups and downs of their relationship.  The other narrator, Olivia, is the boyfriend’s mother.  When she is sharing her story, we discover that she is trying to transcend a past that injured and overly defined her.  She shares her story and gives us a play-by-play account of her son’s arrest and trial.  

The novel includes a surprise twist in the very middle, which I won’t reveal in this review, as I recommend reading the book for yourself.  The ending, which is not the most important part of the novel, feels contrived.  It suddenly focuses on a third character whom we should have been hearing more about all the way through.

This novel is a collaborative effort, but the writing is seamless, and Picoult and Finney did a superb job of working together.

The novel takes us into the crux of several sexual issues.  Those who gave it negative reviews on the Goodreads website were all offended at having “wokeness” shoved in their faces.  The negative reviews (I read about a dozen) were all buying into a modern religious-right moralism that completely ignores the diversity of sexual expressions found in the Bible, while disregarding the most fundamental biblical ethic of all:  love your neighbor.  But in my opinion, since this world is filled with people whose experiences of sexuality and gender are different from my own, it is more edifying for me to be curious than judgmental.  

Picoult and Finney give us a book full of vulnerable characters, with an in-depth focus on two. Their fictional characters plead for our charity and empathy, as do real-life characters, even those who offend or make us uncomfortable. We don’t have to be like people who are “different” from us, or like them, or approve. But we will do ourselves and the whole world a favor if we can suspend our judgment (Matthew 7:1) long enough to see our common humanity with people who differ from us.  A ceasefire in our culture wars will also help us see more clearly how our moral indignations (whichever side we are on) too often lead us to be unjust.  I learned something from this novel, and recommend it to those who truly want to understand better a growing demographic in our world that has been perplexing to many of us for too long.

Senik, Troy, A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbably Presidency of Grover Cleveland (presidential biography)

Troy Senik has taken a challenging subject and written an excellent presidential biography. It is well researched and argued; offering the reader just the right amount of historical orientation, and simultaneously empathetic and critical toward the subject.

Grover Cleveland, our 22nd and 24th president, was a man of his times, not of ours. Senik navigates that gap quite well. For example, he acknowledges that Cleveland’s attitudes toward race and women would be unacceptable today. But in his time, other conflicts were at the forefront of public debate, and Cleveland tended to be courageously principled in almost every situation where he thought he could make a difference. That courage is unappreciated today, however, because the average 21st century American sees no moral issue in such matters as an economy built on a gold standard, tariffs, or civil service reform.

In Cleveland’s day, however, arguments over whether to base paper money on gold or silver mattered greatly to people, especially workers, farmers, and laborers who income was destroyed by the deflationary push of gold and the inflationary push of silver. Tariffs also hurt working people. And civil service reform was at the heart of whether government was there to serve the people or provide privileges to a few. Those issues mostly baffle the modern reader, and the champions of those 19th century debates hold demand little respect today. Hence, one of the reasons for the obscurity of nearly all the 19th century presidents between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

Cleveland came to fame, and quickly became president on his reputation for honesty and reform. “Tell the truth” was a motto he applied, almost always, even if it threatened to end his political career. His career started in Erie County, New York, where he was sheriff for two years. Nine years later, because the Democrats could get no one else to run, he was their candidate and got himself elected mayor of Buffalo, where he served for less than a year, developing a reputation for cleaning up corruption in the city. That brought him to the attention of the state party, which nominated him to run for governor of New York in the election of 1882. He was elected, and that brought him to the attention of the national party, which made him their candidate for president in 1884. At each step of his meteoric political career, Cleveland was elected as the “reform” candidate. And he stubbornly lived up to that image. While proving himself faithful to the principles of the constitution, law, and truthfulness, he also demonstrated through his presidential term a stubbornness and self-righteousness that caused him to be defeated for reelection in 1888. But when the economy fell apart in 1992, the Democrats again turned to Cleveland, who won an unprecedented “return from the dead,” the only president ever to win election, be defeated, and then win again.

Cleveland’s second term was a disaster for him, both personally (health issues) and politically, as his party was hopelessly divided, his leadership was repudiated by both parties, and problems in the world (economic depression, rampant nationalism, social reform, labor-owner strife) were getting too big for how Cleveland and many others saw the presidency and the role of government in general. Cleveland left the presidency in 1897, and Theodore Roosevelt would reinvent it in 1901.

Cleveland was the last Democratic president to have a minimalist understanding of government. He likely wouldn’t even be a Democrat today. But in one regard, his positions would be considered principled: in foreign policy. Cleveland did not believe the United States should be interfering in the sovereign rights of other countries. But his opposition to manifest destiny was politically untenable at the time, and after he left the presidency, the United States proceeded to fight Spain, turn the Philippines into a colony, informally control Cuba through economic invasion, take over Panama, overthrow the queen of Hawaii, and take possession of the Virgin Islands and Samoa.

He was, in short, morally principled but politically inept.

As a person, Cleveland was a large man who liked hunting and fishing, drinking, card playing with friends, and work. He was a workaholic, probably more so than any other president. He was a bachelor until he became president, when he married a lifelong friend of the family, 27 years his junior. He had a cancerous tumor removed from his mouth, a life-threatening surgery at the time, during his second term. In a rare case of NOT telling the truth, that surgery was kept secret until after his death. At the time, the economy was tottering, and he feared that news of a possible presidential terminal illness might destroy the country’s economy.

Senik also covers the scandal that arose during Cleveland’s first run for president, when he was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock and then sending the mother away. The rumor was most likely untrue, and Senik gives a good airing of all sides.

Good presidential history writing involves the ability to read through all the political spin, and then find truth in the sanctuary of rationality and thoughtfulness in a sanctuary beyond the turbulence. Senik achieves that rare accomplishment here.

Cleveland is a challenging subject, mostly because of his times. But Senik makes a compelling argument for dusting off the information about him and learning a little wisdom for our own day, from Cleveland’s life, about how to maintain integrity and still be effective in governing in a political climate. Cleveland didn’t quite pull it off, but the lessons we can learn from his life are invaluable.

Straczynski, J. Michael, Together We Will Go:  A Road Trip to the End  (novel, suicide)

Twelve individuals, previously unknown to one another, hop on a meandering, rickety, cross-country bus to California, with the intent of committing suicide together once they reach San Francisco.  

It all starts when Mark, the organizer of the bus trip, posts an internet ad inviting suicidal individuals to join him for a fun filled road trip, culminating at the Pacific Ocean, where they will drive the bus off a cliff and die together happily.  They have to sign a contract:  that on the trip out they will each post their stories and their reasons for committing suicide onto a private server, to be kept confidential until after they are all dead.  Their thoughts will then be released to the world.  

But no trip turns out entirely as planned. The novel will introduce us to a cast of young characters (all but one are in their twenties.)  There is Mark (a failed writer and organizer of the trip,) Karen (a woman with a debilitating and painful neurological disease,) Zeke (a hopeless drug addict whose closest friend is his dying cat,) Lisa (tortured with bi-polar disorder,) Shanelle (an obese woman bullied for it all her life,) Vaughn (the only senior on the bus, a 65-years old widower with a secret guilt,) Tyler (with only weeks to live because of a terminal illness,) Peter (a strict rationalist who has decided that suicide is the only logical decision for him,) Theo (a non-gendered, gentle, idealist who cannot handle the harshness of this world and looks forward to a utopia on the other side that he has conceptualized in his writings,) Dylan (the bus driver and only member of the party who does not plan to commit suicide–  he will drive them to San Francisco, but then let one of the others drive the bus over the cliff, as they want a non-suicidal person doing the driving until they arrive at their destination, for the obvious reason that they may not make it to their destination,) and finally, the only couple to get on the bus, Jim and Theresa, who decide to commit suicide because Jim is Black and Theresa’s father has threatened to kill him if the two of them get married.

Along the way they sing, argue, get on each other’s nerves, get drunk and high, fall in love, kick some of the passenger off the bus, think about whether they really want to go through with suicide, post their thoughts on the server, discover new things about each other and themselves,  trash an abandoned shopping mall, run up credit cards, get into brawls with locals along the way, and have two trip-changing run-ins with the police.  

The implied author of the novel only appears on the first couple pages, giving a rational for releasing the “material” that will constitute the rest of the book:  journal entries of the bus riders, emails, text messages sent while on the trip,, voicemails, and transcribed recordings of their conversations.  The author’s intent for releasing all the material is to give readers an objective understanding of why people commit suicide. 

The craft of the author is quite good.  Having a book composed almost entirely of emails and text messages works well.  The reader develops an affinity for almost all the characters.  There is no single protagonist in the book, but ten.  The suspense is compelling all the way till the very end of the novel. The story shows how the suicide theme is inextricably connected with other topics:  religion, mental health, physical illness, humaneness for end-of-life issues, the afterlife, revenge, love, freedom of choice, responsibility to others, fate, self-empowerment, guilt, victimhood…

 As a reader, I read the novel through the lens of my own experiences, feelings, and values.  As a pastor, I’ve had parishioners commit suicide and been asked to preside at the funerals of others who killed themselves.  I have worked closely with a couple hundred people who had serious mental health problems and pondered how much control they had over their own choices. I had a friend who committed suicide.  I’ve had low points in my own life that were a challenge to me—but not been suicidal.  I’ve been self-aware of my own inclinations against it for myself.  I have strong opinions about the death penalty, and see some suicide as a form of a self-imposed death penalty.  I believe that some people, by life-style choices, are subconsciously committing slow suicide. I see the humane side of assisted suicide in some situations.  I have been in the room where a man blew his own brains out– and struggled with what I saw.  I believe in the resurrection.  I am repulsed when people condemn others, even for the worst of sins, and have struggled my whole life to control my own spirit from judging those who offend me (including some of the characters in this book!)  I have a strong conviction that we all live with illusions in our lives, and that we (and those affected by us) are best served by becoming disillusioned fast as possible.  And I believe that we sometimes lock our own selves into living a story we don’t like, refusing to take alternative paths when they present themselves.  In fact, my vocation in retirement is to help individuals and organizations change the trajectory of their “stories.” I try all the time to convince people that a different story possible for them and that there are practical steps that can be taken to effect those changes.

I come now to my one criticism of the book:  while its plot is wonderful and original, its story is thin.  What is the difference between plot and story?  The plot is what we witness as we look on from the outside.  In the case of Straczynski’s novel, the plot consists of the highways, the parties, the arguments, the tears, the lovemaking, the text messages, the chase scenes…  This novel has a great plot.

But if the plot is what we see happening from the outside, the story is what we see happening inside individuals, often not known unless the writer delves in and reveals what is inside:  the pain, desire, determination, doubts, plan-shifting, conflicts, loyalties, discouragement, hope, confusion, growth…  The story chronicles the inward journey a protagonist makes.  It includes what the character wants, the obstacles to getting it, the changes that have to be made along the way, the response to tragedy, the adjustments finally made, and the differences between the inner life of the character at the beginning of the story and the inner life at the end.  We see how the story affects the plot, and visa versa.  

In a good novel, the protagonists think they know what they want, but as the plot moves along, they are forced to discover a deeper, often hidden desire that begins to displace the earlier goal.  For example, in most romance movies, the story starts out with an engaged couple.  Then the plot forces one of them to realize that there might be a better future in store with someone else. The awakening person slowly becomes enamored of the “better match” and faces a crisis over who to pick.  The plot and storylines of romance movies are all similar (with only a few exceptions.)  The character does not needto make the wiser or more life-giving choice, but they need to wrestle with it.  In a happily-ever-after story, the protagonist always makes choice we want them to make.  In a tragedy, the protagonists can’t make the choice of their better angels.

In Straczynski’s novel, the characters are all enamored with suicide.  They think it’s what they want to do.  This is where the story of Together We Will Go disappoints.  Great plot—but the promising storylines that don’t deliver as much as they could.  

Only two characters of the 12 really seem to grow in self-understanding (Tyler and Shanelle.)  Several characters have ideas of a utopian paradise, enticing them to exit this world and get to a better place.  They are never challenged in the novel.  But their thinking challenged me.  As a theologian (and Christian) who believes in a realm of justice and joy beyond death itself, I do not object to the characters’ pictures of utopia.  What bothers me is that they assume that life ‘on the other side’ has no connection, wisdom, or strength to offer ‘this life’ with all its pain and challenges. They believe in a better world to come that has no impact on our world now, except to make it easier to leave. I wish someone would have appeared in the novel to press the “heaven-bound” suiciders with better questions.   

The twelve travelers have numerous experiences that give them openings for reassessing what they want.  As I said above, only two will incorporate those experiences into a better self-understanding and then allow that new understanding to guide them forward.  The rest will either meet an unexpected fate that ends up with others determining their future for them, or they will snap back to their original suicidal plan without having any deeper understanding of themselves in relationship to suicide.  

All of the characters have had a hard life, including Dylan, the bus driver.  All but Dylan have responded to life’s troubles by locking themselves in a story that will eventuate in suicide.  Too many of them stay locked inside their own stories. (I won’t spoil the plot for you—you will have to read the book to find out if any of them commit suicide—or all of them.) 

Are they committed to suicide, or are they obsessed?  Are they being true to themselves, or are they refusing to honor those aspects of themselves they have not yet had time to discover?  Are they within their ‘rights’ to take their own lives, or are the rights of others in their lives more compelling?  Are they simply being truthful and realistic about the limits of life in this world, or is their whole mental construct an illusion?  Is it right to challenge a person who has longed for suicide– should we not live and let live, tolerate different opinions and respect the decisions of others, no matter how uncomfortable they make us–  or are we ethically compelled to talk a suicidal person down?  All the characters in the book casually respect the suicidal decision of all the others, as though that’s what all enlightened and modern people should do.  By what ethical principles is such behavior justified? 

The characters on the bus never meet anyone who probes the deeper questions.  But in real life, those of us who face the realities of suicide (either by our own thoughts or by the thoughts of people in our orbit) need something deeper than the characters of this novel provide.  

I give it five stars out of five, even though it is lacking what I have defined as “story.”  I’m giving it full credit because it does such a good job of kicking the deeper questions back at us.  And in the end, we are the ones who have to wrestle with them better, not the fictional characters of this book.

Books Read in October and November 2022

Atkinson, Rick, The British Are Coming:  The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, Volume One of the Revolution Trilogy  (history, American Revolution, winner of the Pulitzer Prize)

Berry, Wendell, A Place on Earth (novel/short stories, rural Kentucky)

Brown, David S., The First Populist:  The Defiant Life of Andrew Jackson (presidential biography, reflection on personality and democracy)

Ferrer, Ada, Cuba: An American History (history of Cuba and the nations that effected it)

Grisham, John, The Boys from Biloxi (novel, legal, crime, politics)

Klaus, Carl, H., A Self Made of Words:  Crafting a Distinctive Persona in Nonfiction Writing (craft of writing)

Montgomery, Lucy, Anne’s House of Dreams (novel #5 in the Anne of Green Gables Series)

Montgomery, Lucy M.  Anne of Ingleside (novel #6 of the Anne of Green Gables Series)

Pawlish, Renee, This Doesn’t Happen in the Movies, The Reed Ferguson Mystery Series, Book 1 (detective mystery novel)

Pietrusza, David, Roosevelt Sweeps the Nation:  FDR’s Landslide and the Triumph of the Liberal Ideal (history, American elections, biography)

Scott, Dale, The Umpire is Out: Calling the Game and Living My True Self (memoir, baseball)

Smerconish, Michael, Talk (novel, politics, radio talk shows)

Atkinson, Rick, The British Are Coming:  The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, Volume One of the Revolution Trilogy  (history, American Revolution, winner of the Pulitzer Prize)

Everything is excellent about this book.  It includes original material, as the author is the first to have access to the private diaries and papers of King George III.  It draws heavily on other original sources, primarily diaries and letters from both Americans and British soldiers and citizens.  It includes (although not extensively) the political conditions in both London and the American colonies.  The author’s extensive military knowledge and readable accounts of battles are supplemented by some of the best maps found in any historical book.  

In addition, Atkinson is one of the finest prose writers to be found in any genre of literature.  His vocabulary and twist of phrase, his understated sense of humor, and his poignant summary paragraphs are a reading pleasure.

This is the first volume of Atkinson’s Revolutionary War Trilogy, and I look forward to reading the other two volumes as soon as they are published.

On a personal level, one of the truths of the Revolutionary War that struck me, brought out by Atkinson, was the inhumanity and violence of the conflict. Added to the extreme challenges of weather and nearly zero technology when it came to communication, the hardships endured by fighters on both sides (as well as civilians caught in the middle) is virtually unfathomable to me.  (And I have a pretty good imagination.)  Winter marches over snow and ice with no shoes, men reduced to eating spoiled pork, rats crawling over bodies while sleeping, amputations without pain killers, and night marches with days of no sleep were the norm.  Honorable treatment of prisoners only extended to a few officers. Ordinary prisoners of war died at an alarming rate.

Atkinson does a good job of describing how the British had to fight not only an army, but also a nation of people who felt aggrieved.  The British had to conquer, American only had to endure.  This dynamic would be reversed in many wars the United States would enter during the 20th and 21st centuries.

Atkinson also gives us a realistic picture of George Washington.  He traces Washington’s development from an arrogant, condescending general who arrived outside Boston after Lexington and Concord, to a man who grew to respect his troops and develop a bonding with them as the war continued.  He also learned to rely on others for advice, took bold action when needed, kept his cool in almost all circumstances, blocked out his conscience when it came time to send others to their deaths, applied administrative genius to his work, and learned from his military mistakes.  

A quote from near the end of the book: “Certainly Washington’s (first) eighteen months in command had brought bitter lessons:  that war was rarely linear, preferring a path of fits and starts, ups and downs; triumphs and cataclysms; that only battle could reveal those with the necessary dark heart for killing, years of killing; that only those with the requisite stamina, aptitude, and luck would be able to see it through; and finally—the hardest of war’s hard truths—that for a new nation to live, young men must die, often alone, usually in pain, and sometimes to no obvious purpose.  He, more than anyone, would be responsible for ordering those men to their deaths.”  (pg. 553)

Berry, Wendell, A Place on Earth (novel/short stories, rural Kentucky)

A Place on Earth is vintage Wendell Berry, full of rich characters, poignant insights about life, and deep engagement with nature. While this is easily a stand-alone novel, it also features familiar characters and places in Berry’s other stories. Port William is a small Kentucky village just up from the river. This novel is set during World War II and features Mat and Margaret Feltner, whose son is missing in action. Their pregnant daughter-in-law lives with them, and gives birth to their now fatherless grandchild. We get the story of how the local barber, Jayber Crow, takes on the additional duties of grave-digger. There is an insightful portrait of the local pastor, who cannot bring himself to be humble and human in situations of human grief. Burley Coulter, another character in Berry’s stories appears at full strength in this novel: his intelligence, his rebellion, his likability.

Like most of Berry’s work, he doesn’t hesitate to walk through darkness and unthinkable grief. He does so slowly, with grace, and with kindness. There are dark moments here: the death of a child in a flood, the death of a young man in the war, the suicide of a middle aged man who cannot stand the emptiness of his life. They are told with imagination, empathy, and spaciousness.

Life is exposed here, in all its embarrassment, pain, and comedy, handled forthrightly, gently, and in context by Berry. He has long been one of my favorite authors, and this book lives up to my hopes and expectations.

Brown, David S., The First Populist:  The Defiant Life of Andrew Jackson (presidential biography, reflection on personality and democracy)

I’ve read several books on Andrew Jackson and have found him a man of extraordinary strength and luck, and an individual deeply flawed, who left a questionable effect on United States history.  Brown’s book didn’t improve my liking for Jackson.  

As an historical scholar, Brown is a bit suspect.  He wants to make a point, a valid point, but he tells Jackson’s story in such a way as to serve his point, not necessarily the whole truth.  Nevertheless, Brown isn’t wrong.  

Jackson survived a childhood that was traumatic and violent.  He saw both his brother and mother killed as a consequence of British behavior during the Revolutionary War.  He was driven by the fires of both hatred and violence.  As an owner of slaves, an Indian fighter, a duelist, and a commander who sent several of his soldiers to the firing squad, Jackson trafficked in violence his whole life.  It was his answer to nearly every challenge.  

But he also had an intelligence and an intuition that made him highly successful.  Unfortunately, that brilliant mind was generally applied to his own advancement.  His political positions were consistent only to the extent that they served his own advancement.  

He was the first president to utterly disregard the constitution’s balance of power arrangement.  Jackson defied both congress and the Supreme Court.  We continue to see how fraught those attitudes are in our own recent presidents.

Brown finishes his book with brief mentions of the relationship between Trump and Jackson.  He also links Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon Johnson, but offers no evidence. 

As I was reading Brown’s book, I kept thinking of Donald Trump (not the first time I’ve noticed similarities between Trump and Jackson.  While not nearly as intelligent as Jackson, (but just as intuitive), Donald Trump has much of Andrew Jackson’s mindset. The public anger that both Jackson and Trump tapped into is similar.  Both appealed to a citizenry that felt neglected and marginalized by the elite.  The personality flaws of both were seen as assets rather than liabilities in the fight against the elite.   

Ferrer, Ada, Cuba: An American History (history of Cuba and the nations that effected it)

How can I be an American in my late 60s and have never read anything substantial about Cuban history before this book? I’ve always had an awareness that those of us from the United States are not the only “Americans.” But still, I’ve been oblivious to the effects my government and my people have had on our nearest neighbors.

Ferrer’s book is about the history of Cuba, with a special emphasis on the role of Spanish colonialism, U.S. Manifest Destiny, and Soviet authoritarianism on Cuban history. In every one of these international relationships, Cubans suffered grievous injustices. The most powerful suppression of Cuba came from the U.S., its super-power neighbor. Many U.S. politicians in the 1800s lusted after Cuban statehood. In the 1900s, the Platt Amendment, passed by the U.S. Congress insisted on the right of the U.S. to intervene in Cuba anytime it deemed necessary. For half a century, the U.S. controlled every facet of Cuban government, economy, and social life. U.S. citizens, under the protection of the Platt Amendment, bought up all the best land and businesses in Cuba.

Slavery dominated Cuban history, and even after it was outlawed, racial discrimination continued there as it did in the U.S. Ferrer paints a compelling narrative of how blacks have been treated in Cuba, and it makes an informative and thoughtful read as we consider the racial injustices in the U.S.

In the 1800s, a number of Cubans rose up to try and throw off the shackles of Spain. By the end of that century, a successful movement was initiated by Jose Marti and his partners. Based in exile in the U.S., Marti organized a revolution that would free Cuba not only from Spain, but also U.S. control. Even though he was cut down in the war in 1895, his movement continued to be effective in ending Spanish rule. Only when it appeared that the Cubans would gain independence on their own did the U.S. decide to intervene, thus precipitating the Spanish-American War. Ferrer asserts that the U.S. did little to drive out a weakened and declining Spain, (The Cubans had already done all the heavy lifting) but jumped in at the last minute in order to gain control over Cuba and other Spanish colonies (e.g. the Philippines.) Her account is thorough enough that the burden of proof is now on those who still insist that the U.S. is the only reason Cuba is free from Spain. I’d be interested in hearing their argument.

It is indisputable that once the U.S. gained control in Cuba, they took over sugar plantations, dictated to the government, kept black Cubans in their place (courtesy of southern U.S. politicians), increased the gap between the wealthy and the poor, and used Cuba as a refuge for all the gambling, prostitution, liquor, and organized crime that was illegal in the U.S. itself.

By the 1940s, Cuba was chaffing for economic and political reform. A new constitution was passed, over the objections of the U.S. government. But the leaders elected under that constitution soon caved to U.S. pressure and sank into corruption. Elections were fraught with fraud and assassinations.

In 1948, as Carlos Prio Socorro prepared to take the oath as president, the outgoing minister of education, Jose Manuel Aleman, organized a caravan of four green GM trucks to travel to the treasury building, where he and several men loaded several suitcases with money from the vaults: pesos, pounds, francs, rubles, lire, and dollars. Aleman headed straight for the airport, boarded a DC-3, and flew to Miami. He had $19 million dollars on him. When customs officials stopped him, he told them to call Washington, where officials there decided there was no law against bringing so much money into the U.S. The money never was returned to the Cuban people.

The native Cubans who were elected to office were either incompetent or corrupt. Ferrer relates numerous stories about such leaders as Gerardo Machado, Ramos Grau San Martin, and Fulgencio Batista. Eventually, by the late 1950s, she reports on the emergence of Fidel Castro.

Ferrer’s work on Castro is excellent historiography. She helps us see clearly why he came to power. She also gives a balanced report of his strengths, his legitimacy, his illusions, his ruthlessness, and his effect on Cuba. In addition, she makes clear that American officials, especially in the Kennedy administration, had a myopic understanding of both Cuba and Castro, primarily due to the lingering effects of Manifest Destiny in the sixties, the same blindness that led to Viet Nam.

There is an excellent narrative on the relationship between the Soviet Union and Cuba, as well as Cuban involvement in Angola. Ferrer makes clear that by allowing itself to become so dependent on Cuba, Castro once again made the perennial mistake of allowing his resource-limited country to be controlled and humiliated by a foreign power.

The book ends with the death of Castro, the unique Obama approach to Cuban/US relations, and the reversing of Obama’s policies by Trump. Her closing paragraphs are a work of literary beauty. She directs her attention to sculptor Teodoro Ramos Blanco (1902-1972). His monuments and works are found throughout Cuba and the United States. They represent not only the famous but the millions of forgotten Cubans who shaped that country’s story. Ferrer writes on page 468: “History…is also the countless lives that are nestled in its sway. Consider all the people who may have lived at some point during Cuba’s long history, from before the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the present. Every one of those lives embodies and condenses the history that made it. The large-scale events of history–conquest, enslavement, revolution, war–ripple through individual lives, shaping them like so much stone or clay. As history makes people, so do people make history, reworking it, day by day, creating meaning of the world around them, often acting in ways that tend to fit but awkwardly in the categories of epic history.”

This book, published in 2022, won Ferrer a Pulitzer Prize. I can see why. She currently teaches history and Latin American Studies at New York University. I look forward to more books from her.

Grisham, John, The Boys from Biloxi (novel, legal, crime, politics)

I read Grisham novels when I’m looking for a break from everything else in my life.  His characters, plot, and suspense are compelling, and he’s always a quick and easy read for me, a great diversion.

This is one of the best of his novels.  Involving a crime syndicate along the Mississippi coast and a young district attorney determined to clean up the area, the plot turns deadly.  The novel features murder for hire, a corrupt sheriff, cowed state and federal officials, prostitution, gambling, drinking, drugs, and weapons trafficking.  It also features two boys who grow up friends, playing baseball together, and talking about shared future dreams.  But the two boys both take after their fathers:  one a syndicate boss, the other a crusading prosecutor.  As the book reaches its climax, the two are mortal enemies.

Grisham novels are plots without story:  in other words, the characters really don’t change much in the course of his books.  Some go through some inner turmoil, but they don’t ever grow.  This novel is no exception.  Don’t look for any good human insights here.  It’s a fast, fun read though.

In a couple places, the novel is poorly edited, seeming to skip a page or two, as the plot changes abruptly.  It normally moves along smoothly but for these exceptions.  The only other technical problem is an inconsistent point of view in a couple places.  We read the novel from the point of view of the protagonists.  But in one place Grisham shifts to the point of view of the antagonist, for no good reason.  It’s a little disconcerting in an otherwise well written book.

Klaus, Carl, H., A Self Made of Words:  Crafting a Distinctive Persona in Nonfiction Writing (craft of writing)

I was motivated to read this short book in order to give more thought to the “persona” I convey in my nonfiction writings.  People who read my Sunday Posts report being as attracted to the persona as to the content.  In every piece of nonfiction we write, we reveal a portion of our personality, our persona.  We can either be intentional or unintentional in making that reveal.  Klaus gets us thinking about the “self” we reveal in our writing and shows us techniques for either concealing or revealing more.  

Different kinds of writing call for revealing different aspects of ourselves.  I show more personality in my Sunday Posts than I do in an academic paper, where I reveal more of how the left side of my brain works. 

The most helpful take from this book came in considering the impact of three kinds of writing:  colloquial, informal, and formal.  As a pastor, I’m often stuck in formal writing at those moments when I’m trying to be most instructive and persuasive about important issues.  But this book helped me see that the people I’m usually trying to persuade are usually much more responsive to my colloquial style. I hope to use some of his techniques for improving those kinds of writing.

The book is short, but tedious many places.  Klaus uses variations of the same autobiographical anecdote over and over to illustrate various points he wants to make.  It is hard to stay interested. 

But I got out of the book what I came for, and for that I’m pleased.

Montgomery, Lucy, Anne’s House of Dreams (novel #5 in the Anne of Green Gables Series)

There is an emerging maturity in this fifth novel of the Anne of Green Gables series. As Anne (the protagonist) herself matures in perspective and discipline, so the author (Montgomery) seems to be developing her own skills as a writer, particularly in her ability to put a twist in the plot, her capacity to be sympathetic with eccentric characters, and her deployment of imagination to add richness to the stories her characters face.

New and unforgettable characters we encounter in this novel include Captain Jim (the wise and gentle man man of the sea who tends the nearby lighthouse in his old age), Miss Cornelia (the staunch Presbyterian, man-blaming, spinster whom we only like because Anne like’s her), Leslie Moore (the mysterious, gorgeous golden haired woman with a life full of secrets and a spirit and strength as great as any character in this series), and the Moore cousins, Dick and George (who create great confusion in the middle of the novel), and Owen (a brilliant author who finds his place in the lives of the people on the shores of Four-Winds-Point.

The setting of the novel is in the first year of Anne and Gilbert’s marriage, also his first year as doctor in the village and region of Glen St. Mary (which includes Four-Winds-Point.) Once again, this is a delightful and spirit calming read from Lucy Montgomery.

Montgomery, Lucy M.  Anne of Ingleside (novel #6 of the Anne of Green Gables Series)

I really disliked this book.  Since reading book one of the series (Anne of Green Gables) I was thrilled to know that there were eight books in the series.  None has been as good as the first.  But this novel hit bottom.  I’m trying to decide whether to read the last two.

What’s so bad?  First of all, the book has no protagonist.  We are misled into thinking it will be another book about Anne, the character who walked into our hearts and imagination in book one.  But in this volume, Anne, now with five kids, has faded to the background and become unrecognizable.  She is reduced to a “spear-carrier” in the book, and might just as well remain nameless.  

When she does appear, she has become a caricature of the very people who were her antagonists in earlier volumes.  She is now an elitist doctor’s wife, who looks condescendingly on other children in the town, and seems caught up in material things rather than relationships.  The portrait of her and Gilbert, her husband, is as shallow as a portrayal of a mother and father in a first grade reader.

The book parades a number of eccentric characters who seem too one dimensional and ridiculous to be real.  Each oddball only appears only in one chapter, usually, but we can’t wait to get to the next chapter to get rid of them.  

One of the most disturbing things about the novel is Montgomery’s portrayal of children.  In most chapters, one of Anne’s children is the subject of an anecdote. The author finds the emotional suffering of children entertaining. She puts them through a number of abusive situations, and then diminishes the emotional impact on them.  Granted this was written before the advent of child psychology as a field of study, but Montgomery has no excuse for the way she diminishes children in this book:  she has already shown us great insight into children in the first volumes of this series.

The values that shown through in “Anne of Green Gables” are entirely missing here.  Instead we see gossips, the upper crust of society, and stereotypes abounding and glorified.

This was the last book Montgomery wrote for this series, even though it comes sixth in the chronology of Anne’s life.  We now know from family recollections that Montgomery was depressed near the end of her life, an untimely ending just 3 years after this was written.  Perhaps the dramatic loss of standard is due to an emotional crisis within Montgomery herself.  But when I introduce the series to my grandchildren, I’ll not give them volume 6.

Pawlish, Renee, This Doesn’t Happen in the Movies, The Reed Ferguson Mystery Series, Book 1 (detective mystery novel)

The blurb on Amazon urging me to buy this book for $2.99 was very well written. I’d give it five stars, maybe more. On occasion, however, you get what you pay for in a book, sometimes less.

I rated the book a two because I read the author’s blurb on her website and she seems like she’d be a really nice neighbor, probably a great friend. But she needs to take a good writing class, and probably add some actual writing friends to her social life.

This mystery novel has no story. By that, I mean that there is no inner journey being taken by anyone in the book. All the characters are flat and human-less, robotically reacting to events around them, growthless through the book—in other words, boring.

While the book gives us no story, it certainly has plot—predictable, inane, copied-from-television-shows plot. The situations that arise in the novel seem unrealistic, which is okay if readers are rewarded for suspending their disbelief. They aren’t. For example, the X-Women, a secret group that kidnaps and kills men who abuse women, (undetectable by the frantic FBI trying to find them,) seems utterly incompetent when we finally get a peek into their personnel and organization. If you’re going to have a villain in your story, make them competent.

If I were teaching a class on writing a novel, I might use this book in a lab to explore how not to develop characters or write dialogue. There are no real characters in this book, only thin caricatures. And their dialogue reinforces their unrelatability. The protagonist, Reed Ferguson, is a shiftless rich boy who decides to become a detective. He has neither the training nor the wit to be one, only bullheadedness. His ability to solve the mystery of this novel is only due to outside luck, not any method or intelligence of his own. He has no ambitions, no compelling desires, no commitment to anyone or anything, and no maturity. He reminds me of a numbed out adolescent boy marking time. He never changes in this book.

His client, Amanda, is a sad, gorgeous, alcoholic psychopath. She also has borderline personality disorder, even though the author doesn’t seem to know it. Amanda has stupidly decided to hire someone to kill her jerk of a husband, paying half a million to get the job done so she can get the other 5 million or so. She hires the X-Women to do it. When the husband escapes getting offed, she hires Reed to figure out what happened. Reed discovers her crime but continues to loyally work for her.

The author likes Reed, but we don’t so much. Amanda is pathetic, not interesting, and we never learn anything that would help us understand her. Reed’s brilliant friend Cal is a computer recluse who never goes out in public and has bad hygiene. Not attractive to the reader. Reed’s nagging, hyper-anxious mother appears from time to time in the novel for comic relief, but the author disrespects her, and I can’t figure out which one I want to scold more—the mother or the author. The police and the FBI agents are uncaring and stupid, unflattering stereotypes. The beautiful girl across the street, Willie, seems strangely attracted to Reed by the end of the novel, making me want to warn her about making bad choices in men.

A good novel requires real characters. The protagonist must be hungry but flawed, required to grow and change or fail. The characters must be agents that effect the story. This book is just a coincidence of accidents and bumbling.

In a good novel, something in the main character must die, symbolically, if the story is to move forward. The only “symbolic death” Reed experiences is getting shot in the butt. But instead of teaching him a lesson, his new butt hole just results in him getting to lie around on his couch for a week and let others wait on him.

This book was an opportunity for the author to enlighten us on several issues: bipolar disorder, abuse, males who never grow up, the effect of cheating husbands, underground revenge groups, etc. But this author never did the research to know enough to inform us. The book was also an opportunity to develop a theme—redemption, justice, infidelity, healing, becoming an adult… But again, the author took a pass on all that and just stretched a mindless one-hour TV crime drama into a book.

I thought several times about putting the book down and not finishing. But this was such a perfect example of how not to write a novel that I couldn’t let go. My sincere apologies to the author, with this word of encouragement: keep at it, but don’t be like Reed Ferguson, who depends on accidents and unforeseen luck to get his work done. Do the homework and it will show itself in future works.

Pietrusza, David, Roosevelt Sweeps the Nation:  FDR’s Landslide and the Triumph of the Liberal Ideal (history, American elections, biography)

The 1936 presidential election was a blowout.  FDR won 46 states, all but Maine and Vermont.  His popular vote total was over 60%.  At first glance, such a blowout seems like it makes a pretty boring story.  But there was much more suspense, hostility, and chaos than even U.S. recent elections feature.  

The 1936 election took place in the midst of the Great Depression.  Unemployment was still 15%.  Many of Roosevelt’s solutions had been thrown out by the Supreme Court.  He was accused of being a communist by many, a fascist by even more.  While there is plenty to like about FDR, in retrospect, there were also aspects to his personality that would have given me second thoughts about voting for him.  

No one knew yet how (or whether) the economy would recover.  Populists such as Father Coughlin and Huey Long were whipping up emotion, usually at FDR’s expense.  FDR’s own Vice President, John Nance Garner, thought he was far too liberal for the country.  There was turmoil in the black community, especially since Roosevelt had awful attitudes about Blacks, and even worse policies.  For example, he excluded many blacks from getting social security, in order to keep his southern base happy.

Communists and Socialists were thriving in America.  On the international horizon, communism was becoming more dangerous in the Soviet Union and Hitler was gaining power in Germany.  There was cause for alarm and preparation, and yet Americans were growing increasingly isolationist.

FDR’s opponent was Alf Landon, governor of Kansas.  Landon goes down as one of the most incompetent presidential candidates in the history of the U.S.  Pietrusza’s chapters on him are amusing.

My have two problems with the book.  First, Pietrusza spends a little too much time on some of the minor characters in the election.  While giving us a good picture of the uncertainties and chaos of the 36 election, I think we could have heard more about Roosevelt and Landon.  There was quite a bit of space, however, devoted to William Randolph Hearst, Gerald Smith, Norman Thomas, and Earl Browder.  

My second problem was that the author got a little too cute and condescending from time to time.  An author’s humor can either facilitate a good read, or distract.  On occasion Pietrusza’s humor distracted.  

Scott, Dale, The Umpire is Out: Calling the Game and Living My True Self (memoir, baseball)

Dale Scott was a major league umpire between 1985 and 2017. The book is his memoir, mostly of his career, but also a little of his personal life. I enjoyed the book on two fronts: first as a baseball fan. Second, Scott has an interesting personality, and that came through in his memoir. 

What rattled me a little were his brutal opinions about a number of players, coaches, and league officials that he didn’t like. He liked most of his fellow umpires, but not all. Scott doesn’t give an inch when it comes to the Ripkins, Billy Martin, Roger Clemons, etc. During a game argument with Cal Ripken, Sr., for example, Scott told him, “The only reason you’re a major league manager is because you had two good nights with Mrs. Ripkin.” It is a gossipy book, and we do like good gossip. 

The job of an umpire is to be ruthlessly accurate. And so Scott is as he recounts players, games, and bizarre situations through his years as an umpire. The memoir gives good insight into the life, financial situation, and labor issues big league umpires encounter. Scott worked through several radical changes in the game and provides some historical perspective.

We learn a few things about Scott as a person: about his parents, his husband, his being the first major league umpire to come out of the closet, his discouragements at he beginning of the career, his attitude toward “booing the ump,” his feelings about being assaulted by millionaire players and coaches during game arguments, his politics, his time umpiring in the Dominican, his views about technology replacing umpiring, and his concern for sustaining dangerous injuries while working behind the plate (the reason for his retirement.)

It’s especially a good read for those of us who have been long-time baseball fans.

Smerconish, Michael, Talk (novel, politics, radio talk shows)

I listen off and on the Smerconish on Sirius radio when I’m in the car.  He hosts a daily political talk show every morning.  As an on-air personality, he’s interesting, but too often a bit stuck on himself.  A lawyer by training, he’s intelligent and does a good job of staking out a civil conversation and a middle of the road approach in a country badly polarized.

One of his theories is that “talk radio” and “network news” is behind much of the political insanity and national dysfunction that is going on today. I agree.

In this novel, written in 2014, his protagonist is a former pot-head turned radio personality, turned political radio personality.  He is controlled by experts who insist he be conservative-consistent-and compelling, even though he is not himself very conservative in his thinking.  But he plays the game and becomes very powerful in Republican circles for his performances.

The novel takes place in the midst of a presidential campaign that turns ugly very quickly.  The protagonist (Stan) is a player in it.  But as the novel moves along, his conscience stirs.  Suddenly, at the end of the novel, he has to face a decision he never thought he’d face.  I won’t spoil it for you.

The protagonist is kind of raunchy, and gets boring after a while.  The issues are extremely important, now as much as in 2014.  The politics is a little dated (Florida is still a swing state in the novel.)  And issues are addressed in bumper-sticker style rather than any deep analysis, not even in the deeper thoughts of the characters.

But I enjoyed this novel, a fast read, for its reminder of the poisonous role the media plays in this growing hatred in our country.

As a novel, the characters are rather shallow, the protagonist doesn’t go through any deep agony when he changes… he just wakes up one day and flips.  There is no conclusion to the plot, the novel leaves it hanging in midair. The suspense is good.  The solutions the novel hints toward are a bit too naïve.    

Books Read in August and September 2022

Grisham, John, The Judge’s List (crime novel)

Isenburg, Nancy, and Burstein, Andrew, The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality (presidential biography, political science, democracy)

Jenkins, Jerry, Dead Sea Rising (novel)

Montgomery, Lucy, Anne of Avonlea (novel #2 in Anne of Green Gables series)

Montgomery, Lucy, Anne of Green Gables (novel #1 in Anne of Green Gables series)

Montgomery, Lucy, Anne of the Island (novel #3 in Anne of Green Gables series)

Montgomery, Lucy, Anne of Windy Poplars (novel #4 in Anne of Green Gables series)

Smith, Beverly, A Land No Map Can Find (novel)

Weir, Andy, Project Hail Mary (science fiction)

Widmer, Ted, Martin Van Buren (presidential biography)


Grisham, John, The Judge’s List (crime novel)

I read about one Grisham novel a year, especially when I’m fatigued. In this novel, Grisham does the heavy lifting for me… pulling me through his story with well-crafted suspense and captivating characters. A judge has been killing off people who offended him at some point in his life and is so talented at his hobby that he leaves no evidence. A daughter of one of his victims finds the “thread,” however, and connects multiple murders to him. She secures the services of an unlikely detective–an investigator of judicial misconduct who has never handled a violent crime situation before. But she gets shamed into taking up the variety of cold cases that the victim’s relative has put together for her. Some suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy the book, but it is a fast and refreshing read.

Isenburg, Nancy, and Burstein, Andrew, The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality (presidential biography, political science, democracy)

This is the second book Isenberg and Burstein have written coupling two presidents so we could see how one illuminates the other. (Their other book is on Jefferson and Madison.) Their motive for writing the book on the Presidents Adams is to explore their belief and critique of democracy. Referring to such concepts as “impersonation of democracy,” “unchecked democratic posturing and pretense,” and the role of “glitter” in democratic elections, the authors turn to two of history’s most astute political scientists (the Presidents Adams) to find better understanding regarding the political dysfunctions present in the United States today.

The book contains two excellent biographies, one of John Adams (JA) and one of his son, John Quincy Adams (JQA). The quality of the biographies is rooted in the authors’ sympathy for their subjects, their critical eye, and their careful exploration of original source material, particularly the extensive diaries and letters of both men.

My interest in the book was enhanced by the promise of learning the Adamses’ take on “democracy.” We are, after all, being warned about the death of democracy some observers of today’s political scene.

For years I have engaged in healthy debates with my Chinese friends over the qualities of democracy vs. authoritarianism. But in recent years, with elections giving us too many inadequate leaders, I am having a harder time making the argument for democracy. Countries adhering to democracy haven’t done so well in resolving issues of environmental disaster, immigration, racism, gender-related rights, moral stability, election integrity, domestic violence, crime, international influence, public health policies, healthcare, economic recovery from COVID, or management of wealth and poverty.

Isenberg and Burstein found much in the writings of JA and JQA to remind us that “democracy” is not an infallible god. The Adamses believed it was both necessary to good government AND vulnerable to multiple abuses. The Adamses offer checks and balances to democracy.

John Adams referred to a “free government,” one that collects advice from the people, offers free access to the people, and encourages free communication of the people’s wants, knowledge, projects, and wishes. (pg. 108) Several elements are essential to “free government”: freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and press; education, town meetings to learn of local issues, vital churches, and local militia. These local activities provide a training ground for responsible participation in government. Democracy won’t work if the people who vote aren’t educated and rational.

Free government is a check on the insidious power of the wealthy, well-born, and powerful. JA argued that there can be no “free government” without a democratic branch, specifically, one selected through elections. While elections provide the means of democracy, Adams argued that there must be checks and balances on the masses. The Presidents Adams concurred with one newspaper that noted, “Elections are brothels.” The “people” are subject to manipulation, dissemination, artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, superstition, glitter, flattery, quackery, and bribery. Well-resourced politicians, whose primary interest is self-aggrandizement, will lead masses astray and into decisions that are contrary to both the popular good and the principles of free government.

The Adamses saw such abuses in Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Andrew Jackson—all of whom cultivated personality cults, promoted themselves through images and slogans, and made tools of other people to put themselves forward. John Adams, in contrast, wrote a letter to a political ally describing the two of them as having “an ugly modesty about us…we have taken pains to conceal our names, we have delighted in the shade, we have made few friends, (turned others into) no tools…” He was, of course, overstating his own modesty a bit. But there is much truth to what he said, as no personality cult ever grew up around either JA or JQA. Their independent thinking and constant intellectual growth prevented such adulation.

The Adamses reveal in both their letters and their diaries that they were as critical on themselves as they were on others. This genuine humility and self-examination mingled with their pride and stubbornness, and any picture of them that does not include this paradox is deceptive.

John Adams was engaged in developing and perfecting the idea of a “constitution.” He was the primary author of the constitution of the state of Massachusetts, and the U.S. constitution was modeled after that and much influenced by Adams’s writings, even though he was serving as a diplomat in Europe during the Constitutional Convention. He was particularly keen to develop a difference between the functions of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives would represent the voice of the people, elected by people who knew the candidates locally. The Senate, on the other hand, would act as a check on the House, made up of wise, successful, noble, and able people. The Senate would hold in check the tendency of people to be tricked by the powerful and wealthy. In a world of passion, anger, competition, individualism run amok, liberty turned to licentiousness, and fragmentation, the Senate would make sure the adults remained in charge. (pg. 111)

Adams worried about state and federal elections, where candidates would not be personally known by the voters, and thus more subject to intrigue and deception. “Candidates…invent public identities in order to acquire attention and impress voters.” (pg. 113)

Both Adamses saw how Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson used “democracy” to hide the fact that they were powerful, wealthy slaveholders, who used the democratic masses to maintain the status quo of southern electoral advantage (the enslaved were counted 3/5 in the census, increasing the number of seats in the House the south had…and the number of electoral votes—yet the enslaved could not vote, making the votes of plantation owners and other whites worth much more than northern votes.)

Isenberg and Burstein use the writings of the Adamses to point out that those who developed a “cult of personality” (Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, Jackson) take advantage of people’s tendency to live vicariously through the lives of the rich and famous. If tragedy befalls a celebrity, people will feel ten times worse about it than a tragedy that befalls an ordinary person. (pg. 140)

There is an interesting comparison of Washington and the Adamses at the end of the book. While the Adamses both respected and appreciated Washington, (he was never the subject of an attack from them), Isenberg and Burstein see the cult of personality reaching its apex in those days with Washington. Most people, then and now, know very little of Washington’s thinking, his political philosophy, his intelligence, or his substantial decisions. They know him instead by image: silent, above the fray, honest, popular with the people, calm… Both Jefferson and Jackson sought to model themselves by image. The critique of Jefferson, Jackson, and Franklin is for another book, another essay. But the Adamses rejection of image making for themselves is noteworthy.

This book is a critical read today for helping us understand the struggles of democracy. Perhaps democracy is dying because we have been unable to counter its excesses. There is a cycle, the authors contend, that whips back and forth between the injustice of the oligarchy and the rage of the masses. Such struggle is with us all the time. What we see today in the rage stoked by demagogues is nothing new. The news keeps us worked up daily over the issues of democracy and political dysfunction. A good history, such as Isenberg and Burstein have written, gives us some clarity and a glimpse of the path forward. It is very good that the Presidents Adams have left us such a wealth of wisdom in their diaries and letters. A little more time with them and a little less time watching and reading the news would make us all a little more sane.

Jenkins, Jerry, Dead Sea Rising (novel)

Jenkins tells the tale of three stories, but he never connects them in this novel. (I read that he wrote a sequel that connects at least two of them.) But the fact that they were never connected in this book gives the reader a feeling of being cheated in this book.

The first story he tells is of a modern archaeologist (Nicole) who is trying to get a permit to dig in Saudi Arabia. While waiting, her mother gets attacked and ends up in the hospital with life-threatening injuries. The author insinuates that this has something to do with someone evil from the archaeology community, and the attack is a warning to “stay away.” The attack on Nicole’s mother is investigated by a New York cop who suspects the daughter and husband in the attack. The thinking and actions of the cop are totally unrealistic, to the point of being irritating.

The second story concerns Nicole’s father, his time in the Marines in Viet Nam, and a woman he fell in love with there, before being shipped back to the states with part of his hand blown off. The story just dangles at the end of the novel.

The third story takes place in roughly 2000 B.C. in ancient Ur, and is centered around the biblical Abraham’s father (a real jerk) and Abraham’s birth. It is a dark and unsettling story, that may have more truth to it than the modern stories Jenkins tries to tell, although it is entirely speculative without any evidence.

Throughout the novel, Jenkins subtly pushes his misguided theories about biblical prophecy and lauds the thinking and practices of the Christian sect of Messianic Jews.

I didn’t realize until later that Jenkins is also the author of the Left Behind series. This novel, Dead Sea Rising suffers from judgmental theology, shoddy biblical scholarship, artificial characters, disrespect for the reader… The suspense was good… but it went nowhere.

The author also indicates that Nicole is being kept from finding evidence about Abraham that would change the course of Jewish-Muslim history. This “tease” shows a gross neglect of Arabic history and a naivete of enmity and tribalism, something that cannot be undone simply by the discovery of an artifact.

Montgomery, Lucy, Anne of Avonlea (novel #2 in Anne of Green Gables series)

In this sequel to Anne of Green Gables, we see Anne taking up teaching responsibilities at the local grade school, even though she is only about 16. In this novel, Anne’s spirit pervades: optimistic, imaginative, strong-willed, courageous. She is attracted to eccentric people, and her engagement with them is usually life-transforming—for them.

Montgomery reprises many of her themes and scenarios from book one in the series. Instead of Anne being out of control, we are introduced to Davy, an orphan who outdoes even Anne in his lack of discipline and high-spiritedness. We see the ongoing saga of Anne and her love-hate relationship with Gilbert Blythe. She begins to see the advantages of friendship with him, but spurns his romantic overtures.

Anne is persistent and flexible in this novel. While holding to her high ideals, she is forced to find ways to deal with the practical problems facing her, especially in teaching and working with students.

Montgomery, Lucy, Anne of Green Gables (novel)

Catalogued as a “children’s” novel, this delightful read (for any age reader) traces the adventures of Anne Shirley, an 11-year-old orphan, who is adopted by an old bachelor, Matthew Cuthbert, and his never-married sister, Marilla. They thought they were getting a boy to help out around the farm.  But her being a girl was the least of their adjustments.  They had never imagined such a fiery, imaginative, and loquacious child existed.  

Lucy Montgomery, an interesting character in her own right, published this novel in 1908.  It likely gave her an imaginative respite from her own turbulent life.  The character of Anne is still providing a needed refreshment from all that weighs us down.  The laugh-out-loud speeches that Anne gives, and the predicaments she causes, leave the reader thinking, “I needed that!”

Montgomery wrote a series of books about Anne, as she grows up.  But it is clear that her first novel about her is the best.

Montgomery, Lucy, Anne of the Island (novel #3 in Anne of Green Gables series)

In this third novel about Anne Shirley, we see her headed off to college, encountering more eccentric character (such as her housemate Phillipa) and meeting the man of her dreams (Roy Gardner.) Gilbert Blythe, her childhood friend, has proposed to her, but she declines, and their relationship becomes very distant after that. He dates another girl, whom everyone expects will become his wife. Meanwhile, everyone also expects Anne and Roy to get married: they seem the perfect couple. But as the novel ends, Roy proposes, Anne’s answer surprises, and we are set up for novel #4 in the series.

Montgomery, Lucy, Anne of Windy Poplars (novel #4 in Anne of Green Gables series)

This fourth novel is less a story and more a series of letters and narrative adventures. Anne Shirley, with her college degree in hand, is now a principle at a school, with a staff of two other teachers working with her. She is opposed by the Pringle family, an extended family in the local area. They wanted someone else to get Anne’s job. It looks like they will drive her away after just one semester, even though she planned to keep the job for three years, the time it will take her fiancé Gilbert to finish his education to become a doctor.

As in the other novels, Anne is attracted to a number of eccentric characters, whose lives are changed because of Anne’s involvement with them.

Less a story, and more a collection of anecdotes, many of them variations on previous anecdotes in the Anne series, this book lacks the quality and depth of Anne of Green Gables. But it keeps us connected with characters we love. It is a good book to take to bed at night, to cleanse the spirit before going to sleep.

Smith, Beverly, A Land No Map Can Find (novel)

Libby is an imaginative, fearless, big-hearted six-year-old; and she can’t get enough of her parents and her little sister. She even loves her big sister, despite the aggravations the two of them cause each other.

But by the middle of the novel, Dr. Holt (Libby) is estranged from her family, friendless, lonely, suffering panic attacks, and clueless as to where to turn or how to proceed with her life. Wherever she needs to “go” in order to recover some semblance of her better angels is a “land no map can find.” What then can give her hope and direction? Beverly Smith’s novel gives us hints.

The novel has two parts: Libby as a child and Libby as an adult. Her family suffers several catastrophes in Libby’s childhood that sweep away her bright world. She copes with these difficulties in the ways children do: with illusions of her own power, imagination, curious physical ailments, and compensatory achievements. The world of math steadies and assures her when everything else is unreliable and harmful. (Beverly Smith knows children: their mannerisms and their psychology. She writes about children in the same way that Mary Cassatt paints them: with uncanny and appreciative perception.)

As Libby’s story moves into her adulthood, she finds herself imprisoned by the tragedies of her childhood. But her psyche rebels, especially through a series of panic attacks. There is no map for escape, however, only a courageous exploration into her own overgrown past and an opportunity to carve out a new path to find elements of her true self that can be resurrected.

Smith takes us into the dark, but doesn’t leave us there. This is a novel is full of truths we all share. It is also a novel of hope, the kind that can infuse its readers.

Beverly Smith is a colleague in my writers’ group, and a friend. She is one of our best writers, and I recommend this novel with no hesitation. Of course, as mutual critics of each other’s work, she and I enjoy challenging and pushing each other, and even in this published work, there are places I want to start an argument with her. But ultimately, this is a wonderful read: full of poetic prose, creepy and sad in all the right places, and culminating in hope. Read it!

Weir, Andy, Project Hail Mary (science fiction)

Middle School science teacher, Ryland Grace, wakes up in a spaceship, not knowing how he got there, not knowing why he’s there, and at first, not even able to recall his own name. He discovers that his two fellow astronauts are dead. He is alone. As the novel moves on, he slowly begins to recollect the pieces of the story that led up to his predicament.

One of the things he remembers is that the sun is rapidly dying, a scenario that will kill nearly all life on earth within 30 years. He then remembers why its dying: it is infected with a parasite, a living organism called “astrophage.” He deduces that he is on the spaceship to solve the problem.

Thus, the reader learns that Grace is on a spaceship with a well-equipped lab, on a mission to save the earth. It is a journey that will take him out of the solar system and into discovery of other life forms in the universe. He will encounter several life-threatening disasters, which means that if he dies, so does everyone else on earth.

I’m not informed enough to know whether the science in this novel is credible, but I enjoyed the story thoroughly: its flawed but likeable characters, its suspense, its plot, its theme, its twists and turns… The story includes themes of persistence, learning how to use problems to solve problems, the power of rational thinking, and ethics. The novel is also full of good humor.

I listened to it on Audible, and the great performance by Ray Porter enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

Widmer, Ted, Martin Van Buren (presidential biography)

I read Widmer’s short and well written book in conjunction with a visit to Lindenwald, Van Buren’s retirement home after he left the presidency.

While Van Buren’s presidency was less impactful than his predecessor’s (Andrew Jackson), his work and creativity as a politician was more significant than anyone else’s in American history. As an individual, he wrestled with the primal conundrum of every politician: do I do the right thing… or do I do what I have to do to win the next election? In his career, Van Buren went back and forth on that question. His personal life comprised a good story: born poor, to Dutch farmers south of Albany, New York, Van Buren had to learn English as his second language. He scraped and scratched his way into law, then into politics. His wife died before he made it to the White House, and Van Buren never remarried. His children were a significant part of his life and prominent around Lindenwald (outside Kinderhook, south of Albany) in his retirement.

Van Buren was a political engineer. Finding a broken system, especially dysfunctional in the aftermath of the 1824 presidential election, he (theoretically) sought to transform political parties from personality cults into disciplined organizations built around issues and compromise. He also was the first to market the party to the masses, engineering Andrew Jackson’s landslide election in 1828. Ironically, Andrew Jackson was himself the object of a personality cult. As a reward, Van Buren became Jackson’s Secretary of State, and then his vice president (during Jackson’s second term.) He was the founder of the modern Democratic Party. The system Van Buren promoted was perfected during his time in New York State politics, in Albany.

Side point: in order to understand all the national presidential elections of the 1800s, it is important to learn about inter-partay fighting in New York State, on both the Democratic side and the Republican side. Widmer’s work gives us some insight into that.

Van Buren won election to the presidency in 1836. Put in historical context, is administration occurred at a time when divisions were hardening between the north and south over slavery, and an economic depression unexpectedly hit the country within months after Van Buren took office. He lost his re-election bid in 1840 in one of America’s most raucous elections ever. While he ran again in 1844, he lost the nomination because of his principled stand on Texas and slavery. He ran as an anti-slavery candidate in 1848, on the Free Soil Party ticket, and his presence in the race tipped the election to the Whig party.

While considered to be one of our more obscure presidents, Van Buren is one of those hidden gems that will enlighten and evoke much thought and insight for anyone wanting to take the time to get to know him better.

Books Read in June-July 2022

Adams, Lyssa Kay, The Bromance Book Club: Bromance Book Club #1 (romance novel)

Berry, Wendell, That Distant Land (short fiction, Kentucky, rural community)

Hanna, Rachel, Sweet Tea B&B (romance novel)

Hanna, Rachel, Sweet Tea Sunrise (romance novel)

Jen, Gish, Thank You Mr. Nixon:  Stories (short fiction, Chinese, immigrants to U.S.)

Nickless, Barbara, Blood on the Tracks (murder mystery, psychological mystery) (Sydney Parnell #1)

Pafford, John, M., The Accidental President:  Chester A. Arthur (biography, history)

Rooney, Sally, Beautiful World, Where Are You? (novel)


Adams, Lyssa Kay, The Bromance Book Club: Bromance Book Club #1 (romance novel)

I accidentally read two romance novels earlier this month (see my review of Sweet Tea B & B.)  They were pleasant enough, but I was distracted by the poor writing, the author’s inattention to craft, and sloppy editing.  It made me grouchy.  And so my daughter suggested I try one more:  The Bromance Book Club.  And since I always do what my daughters tell me, I read it.

The craft was much better.  But it still didn’t live up to the standard of a good literary novel.  Craft-wise, the most difficult problem Adams has is the constant shifting of POV (Point of View.)  Sometimes you are getting the inner thoughts of two different characters in the same paragraph. This wobbling back and forth of POV distracts and slows down the reader, as we keep trying to figure out who is thinking and feeling what.  Adams would have been better off had she waited to shift POV at the beginning of each new chapter.

Her story was clever:  a professional baseball team advising one of their players who had just “blown” it with his wife.  His teammates recommend that he read romance novels, particularly from the 18th century, in order to win his wife back.  The story moves ahead with a comedy of errors.

There are steamy sex scenes in the Bromance Book Club.   Writing graphic sex is a challenge for a good writer.  How do you craft them without imitating pornographic letters to the editor published in Hustler magazine?  Adams didn’t clear the hurdle.  It’s not the sex, nor the graphic physical descriptions that bothered me, it was the lack of craft, a failure to find a fresh writing approach.  Sometimes less is more.

The other problem I had with the novel was the obsession with rippling muscles, etc.  It seems that Adams has written off about 99% of the males on the planet as unworthy of a woman’s attention.  But, men have been doing that with women for so long, that I guess turn about is fair play.  But to get in this novel, only studs and hunks and the filthy rich need apply.  I happen to think that romance is possible for everyone.  But I’m not sure this author does.

Having said that, I did enjoy the novel, and if my daughter can convince me that this author addresses some of my “craft” concerns in her subsequent work, I may read another one.

Berry, Wendell, That Distant Land (short fiction, Kentucky, rural community)

Wendall Berry is a farmer, a poet, a critic, a storyteller, and a Kentuckian. His novels and short stories usually find their setting in Port William, a fictional town about 50 miles from Louisville. His characters span several generations, starting in the late 1800s. He describes how the changes in technology, culture, and world events change lives in Port William. 

This particular book is an anthology of stories that appear elsewhere in his writings. He tells them in chronological order, and you find yourself wanting to read about the same characters as they are covered in more depth in his other writings. His descriptions of nature, secret feelings and thoughts, and earthy observations about the human body are exquisite.

If you haven’t ever read a Wendall Berry short story, don’t wait. This book is a great starting point.

Hanna, Rachel, Sweet Tea Sunrise (romance novel)

I read the first book in this series and was glad to get to the end of it, not caring much for the writing or the thinness of the characters. It was nice bedtime reading to clear my mind though, and when the author ended Sweet Tea B&B by hanging the reader off a cliff, I forked out another $4 to read book two to see what happened.

The main character, Mia, keeps discovering new relatives through a DNA test she took. As I finished book two, since there was no cliffhanger, I was released from buying volume 3. The men in her stories are all hunks who were immature when they were young and suddenly become sensitive and brilliant when they are in their 30s. The girls and women are all victims, but fall for these gorgeous hunks who once broke their hearts. There is little depth of character. Suspense ends predictably. Everything moves toward a happily ever after ending with little change in character or attitude or insight that the reader can see. The women are the main characters, and the stories are mostly told through their point of view. All the women are rude and rejecting of the men in the story, then they decide not to be so stubborn (because the men are hunks, and they are soooo nice!) 

The author seems like a nice person, but I’m looking for a better story.

Hanna, Rachel, Sweet Tea B&B (romance novel)

This is a quick, quick read… something I read before going to bed to clear my mind. It is not well written (several typos and editing mistakes) and the characters are too much alike. All the men were jerks in their youth and all the women have similar stories about suffering from those jerks. The men all come back years later and apologize, and the women all give in, fall madly in love with them, and fall into torrid romances. Oh… the men are all hunks. 

Meanwhile, the dialogue lacks originality and quickly becomes tedious. The south is good and the north is bad. The rural town is good and the city is bad. 

The setting is a southern B & B owned by a woman whose mother has died. Through DNA testing, she discovers she has a sister, from the north. The sister comes with a bratty daughter. Of course, once they get exposed to the south, they are transformed.

Other than that, I enjoyed the book and wanted to keep reading it. 

I was glad to complete it, but it ended with a suspense I wanted to have resolved. Damn it. So I spent another $4 to get the sequel on my Kindle and read it too. See my review of “Sweet Tea Sunrise” to continue. 

Jen, Gish, Thank You Mr. Nixon:  Stories (short fiction, Chinese, immigrants to U.S.)

This collection of short stories centers most around family relationships found in Chinese who have immigrated to the United States. Some of the same characters weave in and out of the several stories. As the spouse of a Chinese immigrant, it seems that there is much truth to Jen’s story telling.

Jen is decidedly unimpressed with the ethical standards of the ruling Communist party in China, although the troubles individuals face at the hand of that government are more a sub theme rather than a main theme of her stories. She is has a good ear and eye for the stress that immigrants have as they leave one culture and take up residence in another. She also has a sharp insight into the generational stress experienced by immigrant families. 

Her first story (Thank You, Mr. Nixon) provides is a misleading title for the anthology as a whole. It is a delightful story of a 10 year old girl in Hangzhou who sees President and Mrs. Nixon on their visit to that city. She reflects on how Mrs. Nixon in particular influenced her.

The story then shifts mostly to the United States and traces the struggles and choices of both first and second generation immigrants. 

Jen is an excellent writer and you find yourself getting involved with her characters. The end of each story leaves you wanting more.

Nickless, Barbara, Blood on the Tracks (murder mystery, psychological mystery) Sidney Rose Parnell # 1

The protagonist of Barbara Nickless’s debut novel is Sydney Parnell, a twenty-something young woman who works as a railroad cop (outside Denver) while trying to finish her college education. Sydney is also still in the reserves, having served as a Marine in the Iraq war. She worked morgue duty in the war, picking up and processing the bodies and remains of her fellow soldiers. The dead she has handled visit and haunt her, even back in the states.

At the beginning of the novel, Sydney’s friend Elsie, (almost like a sister) is murdered and her body mutilated. It seems like an open and shut case: all signs point to another ex-Marine as the perpetrator, someone Sydney met in Iraq. He protests to Sydney that he is innocent, and she decides to do some sleuthing.

Like a good mystery, the novel leads you this way and that before a final twist in its surprise ending. Along the way we learn about railroads, the culture of those who hop the trains, ritual sacrifices of Nazi white supremacists, moral struggles of those who have committed war crimes, and hobo subculture. We also get some shoot ’em up scenes, a budding romance, a fierce winter snowstorm, and a sex scene between two badly injured cops.

All this may seem a little much, but it’s not: it works. The novel moves along, maintains suspense, stays within the lanes of credibility, and satisfies.

All through the story we see Sydney wrestle with her demons and struggle to square her conscience with the realities of her life… and the actions of those closest to her. She is an imperfect, likeable, and sympathetic protagonist.

The novel brings the reader into intersecting worlds of violence: war, racism, domestic violence, nature, suicide… The protagonist tries to find a way to move on with her life in such a world. Her plans for moving on waver, muddy, and yield to whatever crisis or opportunity land in her way. Her hope lies mostly in whatever accidents and luck come to her. In the end, even though Sydney is still trying to find a better way through all the violence, the novel itself wraps up by paying homage to the myth of redemptive violence: do unto others before they do unto you, the only way to survive violence is with violence.

This is book one of the Sydney Parnell series. I liked Nickless’s writing skill enough to give book 2 a try soon. I saw just enough of Sydney to think she may be able to find a way around the myth of redemptive violence in the future.

Pafford, John, M., The Accidental President:  Chester A. Arthur (biography, history)

I’ve read several books on our 21st president, and this is the one I’d least recommend. Pafford takes a sympathetic approach to Arthur, but his information is thin and more than half the book is more about Arthur’s times rather than Arthur himself. In fact, Pafford seems more interested in giving a general history of the United States from the time of the Civil War to Theodore Roosevelt than in telling us about Arthur.

Granted that original sources about Arthur are slim, given that he ordered all his private and official papers burned a few days before his death. But there are many documents that survive that are never mentioned by Pafford, such as the letters sent to him by Julia Sand (a woman in New York who wrote to him about his reputation for corruption and urged him to rise above that reputation as president.) There are also many newspaper articles Pafford could have gleaned in his work, specific to Arthur and his presidency.

For me personally, Pafford is irritating because he gives a number of personal opinions that are condescending to women, blacks, and Chinese. He is more an apologist for how politicians in the late 1800s treated various “outsiders” than he is seeing the bigger picture of how systems wasted so much human capital. Pafford also lets his religious beliefs get in the way of his historical objectivity, as he has a concept, mentioned several times, of “biblical religion,” as though there is only one proper way (his way) to interpret scriptures. This comes up in several places as he tries to describe changes occurring in American religious history in the early 20th century. This is odd since it has nothing to do with Chester Arthur, his presidency, or even issues that were relevant to him. 

Rooney, Sally, Beautiful World, Where Are You? (novel)

Among the novels I’ve read this year, thus far, this is the one I recommend to all my literary friends. It has suspense, flawed and fascinating characters that elicit our empathy, politics, psychology, friendship, sex, unique dialogue, nature, sensuality, religion and faith, and numerous quotes I want to underline and recall.

Set in Ireland and England, just prior to the pandemic, the four protagonists are Eileen and Simon, and Alice and Felix. Eileen and Simon have known and adored each other all their lives. But their fears and unhealthy coping mechanisms are keeping them from making a commitment to each other. Of the four, Simon is the religious one, a catalyst for interesting conversations and questions among the three atheists. Simon is an even tempered, generous care-giver, but is incapable of letting anyone care for him. Eileen has been lonely all her life, and her grief frequently turns to grievance, which exacerbates her loneliness. All the way through the novel, both characters struggle against their flaws and we find ourselves rooting for them.

Alice was Eileen’s college roommate. While Eileen was timid, Alice was the “bad girl” who took risks. Throughout the novel we read email exchanges between the two of them, as they reflect intelligently on their past, their friendship, their love lives, religion, politics, family, sex, the future… We also begin to note some fault lines in their friendship and wonder where they will lead. Eileen goes on to become an editor for a little known literary magazine, and lives in near poverty. Alice, on the other hand, writes a best selling novel and becomes famous and rich beyond anything she imagined. This difference between the two friends also gives the novel an interesting dynamic. Alice has a psychotic breakdown and is hospitalized (a past event the two friends occasionally reference in their emails) and Eileen suffers from her own, less note-worthy emotional dysfunctions. This also plays into the dynamic of their relationship.

Alice meets Felix on a dating site and the two of them strike up the most unlikely relationship. He works in a warehouse and doesn’t read books. He’s also constantly broke and owing money to his friends. He’s never heard of his famous “blind date” and has no idea she’s wealthy. At their first meeting he’s not impressed and walks out. His actions and comments are the most surprising and original of the book, revealing his insecurities, rudeness, strength, insight, independence, and humor. The interaction between Felix and Alice is fascinating and suspenseful. The dialogue is brilliant. They keep coming back together, and the reader slowly finds the credibility of the relationship between the two growing. 

I find myself both impatient with the characters AND wanting to remember the things they write and said for my own benefit. Everything considered in this novel: Five stars. 

Books Read in April-May, 2022

Bishop, Bill, The Big Sort:  Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (politics, sociology, religion)

Brammer, Billy Lee, The Gay Place (political novel)

Fagan, Kate, All the Colors Came Out:  A Father, A Daughter, and a Lifetime of Lessons (memoir, basketball, ALS)

Keller, Timothy J. and Inazu, John D., editors, Uncommon Ground:  Living Faithfully in a World of Difference (Christian living, political conflict, theological conflict)

Koehler, Jeff, La Paella:  Deliciously Authentic Rice Dishes from Spain’s Mediterranean Coast, (cookbook) 

Owens, Virginia Stem, Wind River Winter

Bishop, Bill, The Big Sort:  Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (politics, sociology, religion)

Bishop is a journalist who partnered with sociologist Robert Cushing to understand the grassroots contributions to America’s political polarization.  The gist of his discovery is that Americans are using their mobility to cluster in communities and neighborhoods of like-minded voters.  Red areas are getting redder because people are moving out of blue areas to be more comfortable with their neighbors.  People move into blue areas for the same reason.

This same phenomenon is visible in religion, where people increasingly feel more comfortable in churches where people think and vote like themselves.  Mainline denominations, with a big tent mindset, are fast losing ground to homogenous denominations and non-denominational congregations.  Bishop bemoans the growing narrowmindedness this causes, and the paralysis of national politics, but offers no solutions.

While the book left me feeling bleak, I found the information very helpful and it has given me much to ponder as I think about my own decades as a pastor in a mainline denomination, one that is currently experiencing a walk-out over an intolerance of diversity, particularly around LGBTQ+ issues.

Brammer, Billy Lee, The Gay Place (political novel)

The novel is centered around three politicians (a state representative, a U.S. senator, and a governor’s speech writer) who are getting bored with politics, friends, and marriage.  Their search for “the gay place” has a grim and frantic character to it.  At times the novel is dark and depressing.  What kept me hooked, however, was the character that linked all these other politicians:  Governor Arthur Fenstemaker, a mesmerizing master politician, full of ambition, biblical quotes, and political savvy.  Fenstemaker, modeled on Lyndon Johnson (for whom the author once worked) is simultaneously charming, deceptive, all knowing, and entirely mortal.  I wish the author would have given us more of him. Fenstemaker’s wife is known as “Sweet Mama,” and bears a remarkable resemblance to Lady Bird Johnson.

Published in 1961, the novel has been called one of America’s greatest political novels, so far not a terribly high bar to reach.  Its author modeled several of the politicians on his own life, a frustrated quest for love and power.  It was Brammer’s only novel.  After its publication, he drifted in his professional and private life and eventually died of a drug overdose in 1978.  

Originally 3 novels, the publisher insisted it be published as one book.  It was appreciated by critics more than readers.  I agree with the early critics that the book will stick around and likely be a classic, perhaps 100 years after its publication. It includes descriptions of actions, words, and feelings of various politicians that add up and give us remarkable psychological and political insight. I wish we could have heard more from Brammer, and his hero, Arthur Fenstemaker. 

Fagan, Kate, All the Colors Came Out:  A Father, A Daughter, and a Lifetime of Lessons (memoir, basketball, ALS)

The central character of this memoir is Chris Fagan:  his love of basketball, his relationship with his daughter Kate, and his long and losing struggle with ALS.  Fagan played college basketball, then professional basketball in Europe, passed his love of the sport on to his daughter Kate, who played high school and college basketball herself, and then went on to become a writer and on on-air personality on ESPN.  

Three themes mingle powerfully throughout this memoir:  the father-daughter’s shared love of basketball and many hours playing one on one together, the father’s battle with ALS and how Kate, her mother, and her sister all got drawn in to help as he grew increasingly dependent on others, and reflections on the ups and down of the father-daughter relationship and what this particular father and daughter each meant to the other.

Chris died in late 2019, just months before COVID shut everything down.  His daughter’s description of his struggle with ALS is graphic and powerful.  She is brutally honest about the effects of the disease on the body and the ways it upends the life of everyone in the family.  It is hard to read, but very important for those of us out of that loop to understand.

The memoir hones in on the times father/daughter spent playing basketball together, and his influence on her, both to give her athletic skills and life skills in that process.  It is touching.  Kate Fagen shows us her own growth process through the story she tells, and she honors her father in the process.

Keller, Timothy J. and Inazu, John D., editors, Uncommon Ground:  Living Faithfully in a World of Difference (Christian living, political conflict, theological conflict)

Ten different authors contributed essays to this book, each one reflecting on the conflicts they encountered with more secular associates and religious people who held ideas they considered “unjust” or “unbiblical.”  

I most appreciated the tone of the writing:  gracious and thoughtful.  Each contributor wrote from a particular standpoint, one a songwriter, one an artist, one a lawyer, one a pastor, one a teacher, etc.  Each was interested in how to maintain creativity and relationship in the midst of conflicts that normally destroy relationships.  The conflicts were almost entirely over issues of race and human sexuality.  The authors tended to be appalled at racism but judgmental about what they considered sexual lifestyle choices.  

And for me, this was the primary problem of the book:  the sense of religious certainty each author assumed for their own position on the ethics of race and sexuality.  While remaining gracious in tone, the authors each assumed a single “Biblical truth” on racial and sexual issues.  Regarding their certainty, I graciously demur. Biblical teachings and pronunciations regarding racial and sexual issues are incredibly complex.  Those ancient teachings are rooted in cultural understandings and applications not at all equivalent to our own times, thus leaving their thoughtless wholesaling of those “truths” into our own lives a grievous violation of the fundamental teachings of Jesus.  

Religious “certainty” is an insidious virus that is at the root of war, racism, sexism, and nearly every inhumane thing one person can do to another.  If the book wanted to address our growing polarization in both the church and in the wider society, it needed to recognize and address the issues certainty, condescension, and pride that is an occupational hazard for we religious persons. This said, however, the book was a helpful reminder to me, and a teacher, showing me how to treat others out of God’s love for all rather than my impatience with some.

Koehler, Jeff, La Paella:  Deliciously Authentic Rice Dishes from Spain’s Mediterranean Coast, (cookbook) 

This is the first cookbook I read the entire way through.  I was unfamiliar with paella until my wife and I went to a restaurant in Tampa and noticed the dish being brought to the table next to us.  We went back to the same restaurant a couple nights later and ordered it for ourselves.  I decided quickly to try fixing it on my own when I got back to the Midwest.  

Not wanting to do it halfway, I announced to my congregation that we were going to have a “paella” night.  No one there had ever fixed it (nor had I at that point.)  I got hold of this cookbook from a friend, who also loaned me her paella pans.  I read the book from cover to cover and watched several YouTube videos.  On the night of the dinner, 15 people showed up to help me cook, and we fixed four different recipes from the book, without a trial run beforehand.

The crowd of 30 who showed up to eat finished everything.  

The paella has the following necessities:

1.  A paella pan:  a shallow, steel pan, up to 26 inches in diameter.

2.  El sofrito: a slow, aromatic sauté of vegetables.  Tomatoes and fresh peppers are almost always included.  The sofrito can also include artichoke hearts, green beans, eggplant, peas, etc.

3.  La picada:  a mashed paste of toasted almonds, fresh parsley leaves, and garlic cloves, sometimes people add rabbit liver.  La picada is added near the end of cooking the sofrito.

4.  Saffron and smoked paprika:  added at the end of the cooking the sofrito.

5.  Featured meats and fish:  added at various times, depending on the recipe.  These can include snails, clams, mussels, head on shrimp, rabbit, chicken, pork, cuttlefish, etc.

6.  The liquid:  fish stock, vegetable stock, chicken stock, or water.

7.  Rice:  this is the most important ingredient.  It should be short or medium grain, preferably from Spain.  You can buy this rice at specialty stores or online. When the water is boiling in the paella pan, with the seasoned sofrito, add the rice, poke it around to distribute it evenly, then do not stir for the next 18 minutes:  10 minutes on high flame and 8 on low.  The rice will carmelize on the bottom of the pan:  the best part. 

Owens, Virginia Stem, Wind River Winter

This is a 35 year old memoir by a prolific writer, known for her powers of observation and turn of phrase.  Without betraying too many personal factoids, Owens tells us that she (a teacher) and her husband (a pastor) have taken a six month sabbatical to Wyoming to learn how to die.  Both are about 40 and have reached the end of the line, both for their careers, as well as for other aspects of their activity and identity.  Their cabin is a little east of the Tetons.  

Starting in September and going through March, we see the approach of winter, its deepening, and its yielding to the renewal of the earth in springtime.  The winter and what it does to nature all around them becomes a metaphor and a teacher of death.  As they attend a local church through this winter, we get an interesting juxtaposition of religion with real issues of life and death.  Letters and messages from home, their changing relationships with their independent, young adult children, and their physical reactions to the winter all come into play in this memoir.

Owens is a marvelous writer, with uncanny observations and original twists of phrase, unafraid to plunge into mystery and confusion and hold up gems of wisdom.  It is not an easy read, but a valuable and life-giving one.

Books Read in February-March, 2022

Arias, Mortimer, Announcing the Reign of God:  Evangelism and the Subversive Memory of Jesus (theology, Kingdom of God, evangelism, Christology)

Coleman, Robert E., The Master Plan of Evangelism (religious conquest of the world)

Cullen, Art, Storm Lake:  A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.  (memoir, environment, small town rural America, agriculture)

Dickens, Charles, David Copperfield (novel)

Hunter, George C. III, Radical Outreach:  The Recovery of Apostolic Ministry and Evangelism  (church growth, religious conversion, complaints about Christians and institutional church, culture and religion)

Jones, E. Stanley, The Christ of the Indian Road  (memoir, Christian mission, Christology, India)

Larson, Kate Clifford, Walk With Me:  A Biography of Fanny Lou Hamer  (biography)

Messud, Claire, The Woman Upstairs (novel)

Moriarty, Liane, Apples Never Fall (novel)

Pinder-Amaker, Stephanie, and Wadsworth, Lauren, Did That Just Happen?!: Beyond “Diversity”–Creating Sustainable and Inclusive Organizations (cultural diversity, bigotry, rising identities)

Probulos, I.M., Jesus Returns July 13: Times Square New York (satire)

Stevenson, Robert Louis, Treasure Island (classic novel)

Strout, Elizabeth, My Name Is Lucy Barton (novel)

Arias, Mortimer, Announcing the Reign of God:  Evangelism and the Subversive Memory of Jesus (theology, Kingdom of God, evangelism, Christology)

Mortimer Arias, born in 1924, was the bishop of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Bolivia from 1969-1976.  Afterward he taught missions and evangelism at Perkins, Iliff, and Claremont.  He also taught at the Latin America seminary in Costa Rica.  His book, Announcing the Reign of God:  Evangelism and the Subversive Memory of Jesus was written in 1984, during a period of extreme violence in Latin America.  That part of the world was home of the proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Ronald Reagan was pouring arms and mercenaries into Latin America to fight both communist and democratic movements.  Repressive governments in El Salvador and Guatemala were systematically killing their own citizens, including Christian leaders who advocated for the poor.  Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was assassinated by government agents as he stood at the altar leading worship.  Liberation theology focused on the power of Jesus for bringing justice and jubilee to the masses.  Both the Roman Catholic Church and American Evangelical movements used the repressive regimes in Latin America to get an edge on in their own ecclesiastical political wars.  The Reagan administration used the religious right to support its political aims in overthrowing the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.  

 Arias draws on the spiritual and intellectual giants of Latin America to compile his book.  We see the influence of Jon Sobrino and Gustavo Gutierrez all through Arias’s writing.  We also see the influence of Jim Wallis, Jurgen Moltmann, Leslie Newbigin, and E. Stanley Jones. 

In his introduction, Arias identifies the trouble for “modern evangelism.”  It faces a crisis of credibility, motivation, definition, and method.  His aim is to identify an evangelistic endeavor that is biblical, evangelical, holistic, humanizing, conscientizing, liberating, contextual, engaged, incarnational, and conflictive.  His book succeeds with the ambition goal.

…but not without taking the reader through the thick weeds of German and American theological tomes.  His efforts to engage the breadth of European and North American religious scholars makes Announcing the Reign almost unreadable for the average Christian.  It would be a more powerful book if 60% of it were in footnotes.  Having noted that, I’ll pick out the things Arias wrote that were (and remain) most powerful for Christians who want to share Christ with others.

The key premise of the book is that THE key focus of Jesus was in proclaiming the Kingdom of God.  Jesus’ good news was that the Kingdom was here, near, and distant… simultaneously.  It brought and was bringing justice, liberation, abundant life, healing, joy, goodness, forgiveness, and rebirth.  Both individuals and systems were being upended and reformed by it.  

Of course it was advancing into our lives and world with great difficulty and conflict because too many people were enjoying the privileges of the current order of things.  Systems were firmly in place to protect the privileged. 

The modern church, as a steward of Jesus’ message, was failing.  The message of the biblical kingdom has been reduced in modern times to institutional religion, the afterlife, the individualistic saving of souls by prescription, or mere political causes and reforms.  Arias calls upon the reader to recover the core message of Jesus:  the joy and goodness of the Kingdom of God. “Evangelism,” rooted in the Greek word for “announcement of something good and joyful” should have the kingdom pronouncements of Jesus as its essence. 

Arias points out that the Kingdom in the gospels involved teaching, challenge, signs of new life, social upheaval, and demonstrations of power over entrenched diseases and injustices.  With Jesus, the good news is holistic, the “Kingdom” is all encompassing. The “Kingdom” is mentioned 122 times in the synoptic gospels, 99 times on the lips of Jesus. (pg. 8)

Arias points out that the Kingdom of God has numerous qualities and characteristics, often lacking in evangelistic work in churches today.  It is marked by grace, not condescension or condemnation.  The proclamation of the Kingdom (as Jesus presented it) has the power to stop people in their tracks and put them on a different course of living.  It initiates change in a person’s story by starting with the liberating act of forgiveness, addressing what is often hidden guilt and shame in each person, thus freeing the individual to discover new powers and gifts hidden by God in their lives.  Biblical evangelism, centered on proclaiming the “kingdom” triggers new life in individuals and communities and opens communities to people previously excluded.  

In chapter 3, “The Imminence of the Kingdom,” Arias explores many of the parables and sayings of Jesus in the gospels.  His reliance on academic scholars for their conventional understandings of these parables is the weakest part of the book.  The power of scripture, especially the parables, is watered down and set beyond the reach of the average Christian.  I wish Arias would have done exegesis himself on the parables of Jesus (the core of his teachings about the “kingdom” and given us some fire rather than so much scholastic dust.   

Arias introduces us to a distinction between the prophetic scriptures and apocalyptic scriptures. While disturbed by his simplistic and restricted understanding of apocalyptic literature, I fully agree with the main point he was making:  prophetic literature presents us with a relational God who calls upon us to make a choice.  This is in contrast to a God who has already decided the fate of the world and leaves the preacher with nothing to do but announce catastrophe.  (chapter 3)

In chapter 4, Arias addresses some of the problems with “kingdom language.”  He acknowledges the patriarchic, triumphalist leanings of the word “kingdom.”  In this rather eclectic chapter, he then goes on to show how the Kingdom of God will be opposed by the entrenched systems of this world, whose caretakers will attack the Kingdom of God and its proponents with violence.  There is abundant evidence for this, both in the Bible and in Latin America of the 1980s.  The violent attacks of the 1980s are recounted in detail in chapter 7.  Chapter four also introduces us to the choice put before people:  go with the Kingdom of God or go with its opponents, there can be no neutrality.

The crux of the whole book comes in chapter 5, “The Eclipse of the Kingdom.”  Again, in a rather dry, academic approach, Arias describes how Jesus’ message of the Kingdom gets eclipsed in the writings of Paul, who emphasizes instead the proclamation of Jesus himself.  In modern times, this has sometimes led to a Jesus cult, where people adore Jesus but ignore his message.  We have substituted swooning over Jesus for obeying his teachings.  Christians have reduced Christianity to words and labels rather than actions and sacrifice.  

In chapters 6-8, Arias confronts the reader with the need to give one’s life over totally in obedience to Jesus’ teachings and definitions of the Kingdom.  He calls upon the modern church to position itself so that the teachings of Jesus himself about the “kingdom” are no longer eclipsed. 

Two other very strong ideas that Arias presents are 1) the need to convert people inside the church, because insiders have lost a sense of Jesus’ definition of the “Kingdom” and 2) the need to have a community of joyful people who work together to proclaim and live out Jesus’ teachings. The message and the community are both essential to the work and design of Jesus.

In summary, the role of the evangelist is to center the entire evangelistic endeavor on “the Kingdom,” as taught and exhibited by Jesus. Such an approach offers this world and its peoples the only true hope there is.  Such an approach calls upon all of us to make a choice and see the life-giving, hopeful future of a life of full and total commitment. 

Coleman, Robert E., The Master Plan of Evangelism (religious conquest of the world)

I only read this book because our denomination is making pastors read it for part of their training and I wanted to see what we are requiring these days. Written in 1963 and highly touted by Billy Graham, the book purports to give a strategy for evangelism.  But its strategic concepts are vague and filled with condescension for neighbors who are not “Christian” in the sense that the author vaguely defines “Christian.” Coleman assumes a Christianity that is far more a cultural phenomenon than a matter of living by the spirit and love of Jesus.  Women are dismissed as not part of those Jesus worked with or trusted to bring the message of love to others.  The goal of evangelism for Coleman is “conquest.”  

I have trouble with books that are filled with arrogance and religious condescension.  I kept plowing through this one hoping that I still might learn something.  But the main thing I learned is that this book needs to be retired from the course readings United Methodist pastors are required to study.  

Cullen, Art, Storm Lake:  A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.  (memoir, environment, small town rural America, agriculture)

Art Cullen and his brother started a newspaper in Storm Lake, a town of 12 thousand located in northwest Iowa.  His memoir traces the demographic and political changes occurring in that part of the state and in the town of Storm Lake itself.  He writes of growing up there, meeting his wife, coming back there after living elsewhere, and the difficulties of basing one’s livelihood on a small town newspaper these days.  He also traces the loss of the family farm, the farm crisis of the 1980s, and the effect of big agri-business.  Distinguishing between horizontal agriculture and vertical agriculture, he says that the trend these days is vertical: one corporation controls everything from planting to raising livestock to processing to sales.  The result, according to Cullen, is destroying the land itself.

Most communities in northwest Iowa have reacted to the change by losing population, growing angry, in that anger supporting politicians who are demagogues, rejecting long-range environmental solutions, and scapegoating immigrants. Storm Lake, on the other hand, is an island in northwest Iowa, not only welcoming but integrating immigrants, exploring conservation, and making room for farms and businesses that don’t give in to the monopoly of big agri-business.

Cullen won a Pulitzer for his weekly columns, often focused on community and the environment.  His book was a good primer for me, a reminder of my own roots in rural northwestern Illinois, a sign of hope in what is often a sea of insanity. 

Dickens, Charles, David Copperfield (novel)

David Copperfield, published in 1849 and 1850 (first as a series and then as a book) is a novel, written in the first person, tracing the life of the narrator from birth into middle age. 

At his birth, Copperfield’s father has already died. His aunt stormed out of the house that night upon finding that her desired “niece” turned out to be a nephew. His childhood is marred by his mother’s remarriage to a wicked step-father, who eventually sends the boy off to boarding school, then to a factory to work (before there were child labor laws.) 

The novel is filled with memorable villains and benefactors, all creating great suspense as one reads along. The gentle, naive, and observant personality of the narrator is both amusing and enchanting. While there is sadness throughout the novel, it is the sadness expected in any person’s life. The story includes more than a fair share of humor and good fortune. 

Dickens slips in a considerable amount of social commentary about 19th century England, without being preachy. His progressive views about prisons, child, labor, the working class, poverty, education, women, religion, education, and government appear deftly throughout, often using gentle satire as his characters are presented.

The language can get verbose at times, and some of the references, coming from 19th century England, can be obscure. But as I kept reading, I found my footing in the story again through the fascinating characters and suspenseful situations they had to work through.

The novel is a reminder that one of the best ways for me to keep my sanity in the midst of the world going crazy these days is to find company in authors of other times who knew exactly what was happening in their own world, and found a way to guide us through with wisdom and wit.

Hunter, George C. III, Radical Outreach:  The Recovery of Apostolic Ministry and Evangelism  (church growth, religious conversion, complaints about Christians and institutional church, culture and religion)

A 2003 book, Hunter is frustrated at the institutional incompetence and the spiritual aridity of most congregations in America.  He looks back to the more effective days of the New Testament, particularly Paul’s success in Corinth, a multi-cultural city in which he sees many similarities to the American scene. Hunter also celebrates the examples of First Baptist Church in Leesburg, Florida, as a place that has overcome the anemia of most other congregations.  His favorite historical character is St. Patrick, who evangelized Ireland.  (Hunter has written another book on Celtic evangelism.)  Another hero of his is John Wesley, who eschewed the religious forms of his day and plunged directly into relating to the masses of 18th century England.  

As an outside “expert” and seminary professor, Hunter took his freedom from the trenches of pastoral ministry to position himself in a place of condescension and judgment. He is not always wrong in his observations, but his spirit is irksome.  He blames the laity for focusing on their own needs and the clergy for protecting their jobs and unnamed multitudes for fretting over political agendas and correctness.  He also has a demeaning and presumptuous way of classifying anyone who is not a Christian:  pre-Christian.  

Having gotten all that off my chest, there are some helpful observations Hunter makes.  He writes about how people change their religious perspectives and loyalties and notes that there are about 30 elements in the “chain.”  These include acts of God, texts and ideas that stick in people’s minds, compassion and stories from others, and a person’s own determination and agency.  

Hunter chides Christian for being afraid of people outside their churches, anxious about their ideas, behaviors, social status, character, or mental condition. He also chides church people and pastors for not being more creative in finding ways to relate beyond the conventional churchy activities.  

One helpful concept is that of “indigenous” religion.  While presenting the spirit of Christ, a concept that transcends most cultures, Hunter advocates that Christians engage people with more indigenous words, rituals, and activities.  European Christianity, imported to American shores hundreds of years ago, has bequeathed forms not currently indigenous to most people in the U.S.  The high point of the American church, the 1050s, has also left us with form and practices that are alien to current Americans.  The spirit of Christ should be conveyed in practices, music, words, and rituals that are easily meaningful to people.  Churches need to be more strategic about how they use space, time, materials, and play to relate to their own mission fields. While there is a foreignness to the Christian message, it must be expressed indigenously.  On the other hand, he warns against having indigenous messages (adding a layer of religious reinforcement to the worst tendencies of our society).  He brings the reader to the question of what is Christ and what is culture?

Hunter also attacks the prevalence of clericalism, letting clergy do Christianity and evangelism for everyone else.  His book calls for laity to be let loose and take up the bulk of the work of ministry, including evangelism.  

A whole chapter is devoted to recovery ministries, and Hunter urges congregations to look at organizations like AA and find ways to model them.  He also encourages churches to examine the status of their hospitality and devotes several pages to the importance of quality conversations as a means of relating to people and persuading them.

It is a helpful book for a congregation that wants to get its laity more involved in ministry and be less dependent on the pastor.  

Jones, E. Stanley, The Christ of the Indian Road  (memoir, Christian mission, Christology, India)

Written almost 100 years ago (1925), we get acquainted with E. Stanley Jones, a gentle spirit, a sharp thinker, and a man who embodies much about the focus of his life: Jesus of Nazareth.  Jones had already been in India for 17 years when he wrote this memoir.  His time there coincided with the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, and the two were acquaintances and had several interactions.  

Jones’s critique of traditional Christian missionary work and institutional Christianity is devastating.  Sadly, his observations still apply.  India’s 19th and 20th century experiences of Christianity were tied in with English colonialism, racism, and entitlement.  Jones believed that Christianity had been portrayed exactly the opposite of who Jesus really was. Initially, he believed that his job was to present “cultural” Christianity to the Indian people, complete with justifications for the Old Testament, 20 centuries of Church history, and the entire Western civilization, “the whole line.”  Very quickly he realized he had to “shorten his line” and focus on the person and work of Jesus alone.  

The book is full of insightful phrases and telling illustrations. He tells how the Mayflower, after depositing the Pilgrims, left port to steal slaves from Africa, how a tribe of Saxons became baptized while holding their right hands out of the water… so they could continue to use their weapons contrary to the nonviolent Jesus. 

Jones very quickly settled on six rules for doing missionary work in India.  1) Do not attack other religions.  2) Show how Christianity is helps fulfill the yearnings of other ancient religions.  3) Start with topics that are familiar to all and bring Christian perspectives to the table.  4) Be absolutely frank, no hidden agendas.  5) Allow people to ask all the questions they want, express opinions, and engage in friendly argument.  6) Share Christ as an experience, not an argument or theory.

Jones believed that all people need three things:  1) an adequate goal for character development, 2) a full and free life, and 3) a connection with God.  If people had no connection with God, they would be vulnerable to devoting their lives to institutions and causes that would take life from them without giving back. Jones believed that a growing experience of Jesus, as portrayed in the gospels, was the surest path to each of those needs.  He shared with people out of love for them and identification with their needs, not out of his own sense of triumph.  

Jones firmly believed that Christianity and the institutional church could not hold Jesus.  He also believed that people need not give up their native religions entirely in order to put Christ first in their lives.  As with Judaism, Christ came to fulfill the Torah, not abolish it. The perfection and fulfillment of every great spiritual tradition can be found in the person of Jesus.  If only institutional Christianity could rediscover Jesus…  Jones devotes an entire chapter in this book to Gandhi and the similarities and differences between him and Jesus.  

A theory he promotes in his book is “Evangelize the inevitable.”  See where people are developing new powers and influence and spend time with those people, sharing the grace and love of Christ with them.  Jones was not afraid to relate to anyone, however rich, poor, powerful, powerless, or frightening.  

He is especially harsh on the American church for its racism and sexism, showing how practices in churches here have discredited the gospel message elsewhere.  Over and over he recalls individuals in India chiding Christians for being so unlike Jesus.  

His concept of “Christ of the Indian Road” invites people in India to picture Christ not as a westerner, but as one of their own who walks the roads of India.  As he encouraged people to envision Jesus as one relevant to their own culture, he noticed how much people were becoming attracted to the Jesus of the New Testament.

For all who whose Christianity needs a tune-up, this book will surely do the job.

Larson, Kate Clifford, Walk With Me:  A Biography of Fanny Lou Hamer  (biography)

Fannie Lou was her mother’s 20th and last child, one of them who lived into adulthood.  Born in rural Mississippi in 1917, far below any concept we have of poverty, and black.  Hamer begin picking cotton as a child, suffered malnourishment, gave away everything she had to her poor neighbors, and died in near poverty.  She was involuntarily sterilized, beaten, and raped by white men, and evicted by a white landlord for trying to vote. White men driving trucks slowly cruised by her house, occasionally shooting into it, bombing it once.  She was treated dismissively by Martin Luther King Jr. and other men in the civil rights movement for being a woman and only having a sixth grade education.  She was ignored by most black pastors in Mississippi for being a rabble rouser.  She was treated contemptuously by black power advocates for her resolute loyalty to non-violence and Christianity.  When appearing at the 1964 Democratic convention in 1964, after risking her life to integrate the all-white segregationist state party, she had to borrow a dress for the occasion.  Speaking eloquently, she electrified the nation.  Yet a queasy national party establishment still denied her a seat.  As time went on, she started a farm to feed the poor of her own country.  It failed.  She spoke up for the rights of women, but because she was anti-abortion, an issue deeply emotional for her due to being sterilized and seeing abortion used first hand as a way of genocide.  Leaders of the women’s movement dismissed her for her lack of “purity” on that issue.  She spoke openly against the Viet Nam War.  When she died, her grave went untended for years.

She wasn’t perfect.  But if our nation only has one national holiday to honor a singular individual, in my mind, it should not be January 15 for Martin Luther King, Jr., nor February 22 for George Washington, nor October 12 for Columbus.  It should be October 6 for Fanny Lou Hamer.  

Larson’s biography was my choice to observe “Black History Month.” It doesn’t hide Hamer’s faults.  It does make her real, inspiring, and empathetic. It gives us access to Hamer’s power for our own generation.

Messud, Claire, The Woman Upstairs (novel)

Messud’s novel centers around the private thoughts of a 42 year old single woman, Nora, a grade school teacher, who narrates a story about an intense relationship she had with an international family happening to spend a year in her community (Cambridge, Massachusetts.) The boy, Reza, was in her third grade class. The mother, Sirena, Italian, is a fairly well known artist, and the father, Skandar, Lebanese, is a scholar of history and ethics.

Nora’s “singleness” is foremost in her mind all the way through the telling of the story. The “woman upstairs” becomes her metaphor for how people see single women: nearby, but at the periphery of their lives, mostly invisible to others. People have weird emotional responses to adults who are “still” single past their late 30s. She is very conscious of being marginalized by those heavily occupied with families, and part of this story delves into her consequent needs and her ways of coping, sometimes with illusions.

She falls in love with each member of this family, separately, for different reasons. There is a strong sexual component to her love and fascination with both Sirena and Skandar. The eight year old boy is in her class and she develops a special fondness for him, one that pushes her past boundaries she sets up with all her other students. Her eventual infatuation with this family causes her to withdraw her intense focus on her teaching. Because Sirena is an artist, Nora’s own lifetime love of art is awakened. Nora has been building tiny model bedrooms of famous single women, such as Emily Dickenson.

As the novel proceeds, an intense relationship is developed with each family member. And then the family suddenly moves back to Europe, to Paris where they reside. Nora is left with her grief, her anger, her confusion, and her own self-disorientation. Something eventually happens near the end of the novel to make her feel betrayed, an event foreshadowed earlier in the story.

At that point she is left with her anger. Many people reviewing the book dislike Nora and are troubled by her anger. I didn’t share those feelings. While flawed, Nora tells a story that is both honest and wise. She is willing to take risks. While not always understanding her feelings, she expresses them well and gives the reader a chance to understand them. Her relationships with the family are complex and ring true, psychologically. They each become an illusion of the life she thinks she wants for herself. While many would say she has an infatuation, I prefer the term “illusion,” as it becomes a short-cut bypassing her own growth and integrity.

I am not at all uncomfortable with her anger, which grows throughout the novel. And at the end, it is her intense anger that gives me hope for her and causes me to respect her.

This is a hard book to read, as it is deeply reflective and the plot rather thin. Nora’s feelings may make many people uncomfortable. But it is a book full of perception in many areas of life, especially what it means to be single or to feel marginalized in other ways. It is worthy of a book club discussion.

Moriarty, Liane, Apples Never Fall (novel)

This is a mystery novel: a missing older wife, a husband who seems to be the primary suspect, four unmarried adult children who feel torn in their loyalty to their parents; and a mysterious 20-something woman who shows up at the older couple’s house, several months before the older woman goes missing.

The family is nuts about tennis. The parents ran a school to teach tennis, and one of their former pupils was even a winner at Wimbledon. The four adult children have all abandoned the sport, even though it was their entire life growing up.

I listened to the novel on Audible, where it is read by Caroline Lee, an actress whose Australian voice is mesmerizing for this midwesterner.

The characters become well known in the course of the novel, along with things that surprise us along the way. The young “mystery woman” is both entertaining and threatening. In addition to the suspense found in the story, it also provide good insights into human relationships and maturity.

Pinder-Amaker, Stephanie, and Wadsworth, Lauren, Did That Just Happen?!: Beyond “Diversity”–Creating Sustainable and Inclusive Organizations (cultural diversity, bigotry, rising identities)

I didn’t expect to give this book 5 stars when I picked it off my local library shelf. As a pastor of a church, as a white, cisgender, heterosexual male who cares about others experiences and wants to make our institutions more just and my own behavior more thoughtful, I picked it up out of duty.

The first part of the book consists of several stories of individuals who have experienced “Identity Related Aggression.” In other words, individuals they encountered made assumptions, based on “identity,” that resulted in insult or interference.

Written by two clinical psychologists, the book is tough, practical, smart, fair, and forward looking. I especially liked the “language” they offered to help me understand and identify how people are mistreated because of age, disability, mental health diagnosis, religion, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, national origin, citizenship status, gender identity, language, and gender expression. All these realities are referred to by the authors as “Rising Identities.”

One issue in American culture is the anger over “political correctness.” The authors’ careful use of language does not scold, but rather helps us speak more truthfully about realities that exist. A glossary at the end of the book is worth reading, even if one does not read the whole book.

But do read the whole book. The first section is “testimonial” as we say in the church. The second is analysis. And the third is prescriptive. The prescriptive section applies to those who are part of a people who have rising identities, those who lead organizations, and those who know they have offended from time to time.

The middle part of the book was most helpful. The authors call on us all to be better listeners. (a no brainer) But they help us out by pointing out the difference between Empowering Listening and Oppressive Listening. An oppressive listener refuses to be curious and broach the topic, tries to remain in the “expert” seat while listening to another person’s story, blames an unchangeable system for the problem, blames the victim, dominates the conversation with surprise and emotional outbursts, diminishes the other’s experience by making analogies, tries to fix the problem, justifies bigoted comments and actions by trying to explain the heart or “intent” of the offender, and jumps in to the be savior of the problem.

The authors are sympathetic to those who listen. We can hear so much sadness in another’s story that we feel compelled to cut off the listening and get started with the “solutions.”

The authors remind us that IRAs (Identity Related Aggressions) are often subconsciously engrained in individuals, organizations, and society itself. Work in any one area does have an impact in the other two, albeit slowly.

There is a good section on how people of rising identities have to make compromises to make it in systems that are oriented to exclude or inhibit them. People often have to hide who they truly are with others, an act that takes its toll through fatigue, discomfort, loss of joy, loss of self-actualization, loss of creativity, and burnout. Persons of color cannot hide that aspect of their identity, and so take to cross-switching when they are working in an organization or around people who are not persons of color.

The authors call on readers to proactively practice “cultural humility.” This is the realization that our own culture limits us from seeing and understanding experiences and phenomena from other cultures. Cultural humility recognizes how our own cultures limit our knowledge and wisdom and call on us to constantly be willing to learn what we don’t know: a lifelong task.

There is an intriguing section on the difference between an oppressive apology and an empowering one. An oppressive apology takes too long, makes excuses, focuses on the behavior and intent of the aggressor (rather than the effect on the person injured), makes the feelings of the apologizer paramount, prematurely asks for forgiveness and understanding. An oppressive apology forces the wronged person to take care of the one who did the wrong.

I’m fairly open minded and “up to date,” (even though my daughters often roll their eyes at me) and I found this book to be helpful and a growing experience. I’ll incorporate it into my work with churches and my writing.

Probulos, I.M., Jesus Returns July 13: Times Square New York (satire)

I picked this book because my birthday happens to be July 13. A satire, the story begins with Jesus entering earth’s atmosphere in a golden chariot being pulled by four white horses. All the major news networks cover the event, at first thinking a meteor is headed to earth, then discovering it is Jesus, landing in Times Square in New York City, ready to get on with the Judgement Day.

By the time Jesus finishes sending all offenders to hell (even Mike Pence is sent to hell for wearing mixed fabrics in his suits) the only people left are members of the Westboro Baptist Church, two Seventh Day Adventists, three Pentecostals, and Jack and Colleen from Davis, West Virginia. These righteous few then get in the chariot with Jesus and ride off to a better place.

Probulos sprinkles biblical quotes liberally throughout his short satire (less than 100 pages), having Jesus quote texts out of context to justify his judgments, just like many Christians take texts out of context.

While the book left a somewhat unpleasant aftertaste, I sensed two values in it. First, it might be a good book for a Sunday School class or Bible study group to read, to get them talking about HOW scripture should be interpreted. While the language and political opinions expressed in the satire are sure to offend many church folks, it does have the potential to stimulate some interesting conversations.

More importantly, for me however, is the vivid picture of what happens when there is a “break.” (After all, what could be more of a “break” than to send someone permanently to hell?) I am a United Methodist pastor, in a denomination that is rife with talk about breaking apart. There are many people in my denomination who are talking about “breaking away” from the rest of us because we have thoughts and behaviors they judge unbiblical or sinful. They want to leave us behind and ride off with Jesus in their new, pure denomination.

Many of my friends want to go with them. But I am worried about my friends. When you go with a group that kicks people out for not being correct or pure, or not effective enough, or not conforming, then how long will it be before YOU get the boot? Such an organization is birthed in a power struggle, and in the power struggles that are part of its DNA, who is to say whether you will be able to meet the standards of those who will ascend to authority?

This satire is an unpleasant reminder that when grace is evicted from our relationships, everything turns to hell. There is no safe place anymore, not even in a golden chariot with Jesus.

Stevenson, Robert Louis, Treasure Island (classic novel)

Embarrassed to say that this was the first time I’ve read this classic tale. A pirate comes to lodge at a boarding house run by Jim’s father. At his death, Jim discovers a map in the old pirate’s chest giving details on an island where pirates hid stolen treasure. When the map makes it into the hands of Jim’s older and better financed friends, an expedition is chartered to sail and recover the treasure. Along the way, not everyone turns out to be who Jim thought they were at first. The novel is filled with suspense, creativity, and interesting characters. Written in 1880 or so, the language takes one back 140 years and requires one to guess at a few idioms and picturesque phrases that are no longer in use. It was an enjoyable read and the narrative thrills were worth the time spent in the story.

Books Read in December 2021 and January 2022

Bird, Matt, The Secrets of Story:  Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers (Advice on writing stories for books, movies, and television) 

Elias, George Skaff, Characteristics of Games  (guidebook for game designers and creators)

McCollum, Vashti, One Woman’s Fight (history, legal, church vs. state, local history, memoir)

Newlyn, Lucy, The Craft of Poetry:  A Primer in Verse  (poetry, examples of types of poems and the craft of poetry)

Ryan, John Fuller, The Man Who Flew the Amerika Bomber    (novel)

Smith, Molly Dale, Transitional Ministry:  A Time of Opportunity

Towles, Amor, The Lincoln Highway  (novel)

Woods, Stuart, Grass Roots (political, crime novel)

Bird, Matt, The Secrets of Story:  Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers (Advice on writing stories for books, movies, and television) 

I listened to the book on audio (while I was driving) and plan to get a hardcopy from the library so I can take some notes.  I’m working on a novel, and Bird’s book is primarily about writing screenplays for movies and television.  About 40% seems to not apply to novel writing.  But the part that does includes the importance of irony (with one of the best explanations of it I’ve heard) and the craft of building suspense.  

Bird takes on a number of assumptions we make about audiences and readers, such as the expectations they have for surprise, good endings, and character flaws.  

His book includes a checklist of over 100 things for an author to ask about the book (screenplay.)

Bird also gives good, practical information about rewrites and revisions.

Many of his examples are from movies and TV shows, and his analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of those are fascinating, even for someone who doesn’t plan to write something.

Elias, George Skaff, Characteristics of Games  (guidebook for game designers and creators)

I read this book for two reasons: I’ve had a lifelong interest in inventing games, ever since I grew up in the country with three brothers and had to be creative for our own entertainment.  Second, I am a pastor who wanted to introduce ideas of church strategy to my leadership in a way that would be entertaining and pedagogically effective, and so I was working on a board game to that end.

This book helped me think systematically about the process.  It gave me terminology (much of it made up by the authors, I think) to understand what I was trying to do and name things I needed to do to make the game more entertaining.  

It included much more than I needed, and because I don’t play computer games, it left me disoriented at places from its constant references to them.  But on the whole, it was a fascinating and evocative book into games, why we enjoy some of them so much, and why we may tire or reject others.

McCollum, Vashti, One Woman’s Fight (history, legal, church vs. state, local history, memoir)

Vashti Cromwell McCollum was at the center of “separation of church and state” debate in my own community, eight years before I was born.  I had never heard of her until a friend loaned me Vashti’s memoir. The specific conflict was over whether the Champaign IL school district could use “release time” during the regular school day and invite local church approved instructors to take over the classrooms for it.  Students were not required to participate, but if they opted out, they had to leave the classroom and all their classmates and either wait in the hall or wait in another room and do their homework while the other students were evangelized.

Vashti did not agree with the theological tenets and proselitizing that was occurring, and so she refused to sign a permission slip for her son to participate.  The good Christian classmates who were receiving the indoctrination preceded to bully her son and the teacher blamed all of it on the boy and his mother for their refusal to conform. Vashti took the school to court on the grounds that the United States Constitution and the Illinois Constitution both forbade such mingling of church and state.

She describes the attacks on her and her family, both verbal and physical, from the Christians of the community and from Christians from around the country.  She also describes the court case in Urbana, county seat of Champaign County, and how she lost the case there.  She describes how she lost the case at the Illinois Supreme Court.  She describes how the case quickly was distorted from being a constitutional issue to an issue over her own religious ideas and practices.  (She was a secular humanist.)  The local newspaper, still in existence, attacked her personally in its headlines and reporting rather than fairly present the issue at hand.  

The case eventually went to the Supreme Court and she won, 8-1, in the first modern case that firmly established how separation of church and state should be applied to public schools.

The local religious leaders who led the effort to teach religion in the schools were in First Methodist Church in Champaign.  I am also a United Methodist pastor, and while I didn’t know the pastor who was at the center of this storm, I find myself embarrassed.  As a denomination, our leaders today would likely be standing alongside Vashti McCollum in her struggle for religious freedom.  But that was not the case in the 1940s.  

Church leaders in those days argued that they needed to teach religion in the schools to virtually captive audiences because they couldn’t get those kids and their families to come to church and receive such evangelism.  They argued that religious teaching in schools cut down on juvenile delinquency.  They argued that what they were teaching was “standard” and accepted by the majority of the people of the community.  They finally argued that it couldn’t do any harm.  But non-biased research into those assertions contraindicated the claims.  

It is an historical irony that the Methodists and other mainline denominations who tried so hard to use the schools to propagate their “majority” beliefs now find themselves attacked by a new majority in many communities:  the religious right.  If the religious right had its way, it would be indoctrinating students not only with theology that is often unethical, but also with political preferences that have nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth.  I am grateful for the work that Vashti McCollum did, and for her courage.  But it is not a certainty that the rights she fought hard to win can continue to be taken for granted.

Newlyn, Lucy, The Craft of Poetry: A Primer in Verse (poetry, examples of types of poems and the craft of poetry)

Lucy Newlyn is a retired professor of English Literature from Oxford.  In this delightful and creative book of poetry, she teaches the craft of writing poetry, exclusively through her own poems.  

The poems are set in a rural English countryside and village of her childhood.  The “beck” (stream) that runs through the countryside is continually featured in her poems.  Having grown up in rural Northern Illinois, the poems stirred memories and imagination from my own childhood, as well as many resurrecting many places and events I have experienced since.  I borrowed the book from my library, but have ordered my own copy (even though I’m not buying all that many books in my retirement.)  I want to read in it, again and again, when my spirit needs to be comforted or uplifted.

In addition to the beck, she also vividly portrays sheep, farmers, the local pub, young lovers, newlyweds, death, memories of the past when trains went through the countryside, cheesemaking, meadows, long hours of wandering through hills, and the many times she crossed the beck to get to something she was seeking.

Each poem is titled by the concept she is illustrating:  rhyme, rhythm, symbol, metaphor, simile, echo, analogy, Iambic pentameter, Iambic tetrameter, half-rhyme, personification, oxymoron, hyperbole, anaphora, lyric, epic, epistle, Haiku, ballad, free verse…  There are 137 poetic concepts, each illustrated by one of her poems about this enchanted place.  There are no explanations of any of these concepts beyond the example given in the poem called by its name.  You will need another handbook to get definitions… or look them up on the internet.

It is a delightful and informative book, the poems are remarkable in their own right, and it is an overflowing guide to anyone who wants to write anything, not just poetry.

Ryan, John Fuller, The Man Who Flew the Amerika Bomber    (novel)

John Ryan brings his academic study of history and his many 1960s conversations with German war veterans into this novel, which in turn engages the reader in one of the lesser-known plots (never carried out) of the Nazi regime.  

The Germans developed several plans to bomb American cities during the war.  The distances, however, challenged the technology at that time.  Detroit was one of their target cities, due to the Detroit Arsenal Facility, which produced tanks, guns, canons, and trucks for the war.  The heart of Ryan’s story is a failed attempt to destroy Detroit.  

The hero is Max, a hereditary baron from Austria, drafted by the Nazis to fly planes in the war.  He soon becomes disillusioned by Hitler, then horrified as the war proceeds.  But he cannot escape, until he is put on a mission to destroy Detroit.  The plan had two parts:  first to fly reconnaissance over Detroit, publish photos, and scare Americans into bringing home their troops in Europe to defend American cities.  The second part of the plan was to actually bomb Detroit, as soon as the right bomb was developed.  Both plans involved flying to Detroit, turning back toward Maine, landing in the Atlantic, and getting rescued by German submarines cruising the American coastline.  Max subverts the reconnaissance plan and ends up living the rest of his life as a recluse in rural Maine.  

A reporter raised in the area (Peggy) is contacted by Max and begins to learn and write his story.  Her life is dramatically changed by what she learns.  If Max is the hero, Peggy is the protagonist of the novel.  

Ryan’s story moves along at a pleasing pace, is full of suspense, historical insight, pathos, surprising twists, engaging characters, and gently revealed romances.  In short, it is a very good read.

As a matter of full disclosure, John and I are both involved in a writer’s group and I had the opportunity to hear him read parts of his novel as he was writing and editing it.  The process our group followed only permitted him to read a few pages at a time, and all of us eagerly awaited the next week when we could hear more.  I had missed several of our meetings when John read, and was very satisfied to get to read his entire story from beginning to end.

Smith, Molly Dale, Transitional Ministry:  A Time of Opportunity

This is a nuts and bolts anthology describing how interim ministry works in several denominations, particularly Episcopalian, United Church of Christ, and Lutheran.  The writers are all part of a national network of interim pastors, pastors who serve congregations that are in between “settled” pastorates.  In addition to the nuts and bolts covered, in fine detail, the book also has several essays that provoke thought, particularly the one on appreciative inquiry.  As a pastor who has served in one interim appointment (in the United Methodist Church) and is heading into another, I found the book somewhat useful.  

The drawback for me came in that United Methodist pastors are assigned to congregations by a bishop.  The congregation has limited input on the skills they think they need, but virtually no input on “who” will be sent them.  As a consequence, a United Methodist interim pastor needs to work with a congregation that is quite powerless and deal with those real issues.  

On the whole, the book contained nuggets of insight and wisdom.  It’s main drawback was that is was entirely too prescriptive.

Towles, Amor, The Lincoln Highway  (novel)

This was my first Amor Towles novel.  It will not be my last.  The story starts in Nebraska with 18 year old Emmett returning home after a stint in juvenile detention.  His father has just died, the bankrupt family farm is about to be sold at auction, his mother has been missing for ten years, and his eight year old brother, Billy, needs Emmett’s care.  It is Emmett’s plan to leave town, head to a part of the country that is growing, and start life over as a carpenter.  The year is 1954.

But within hours of Emmett’s return, he discovers that two of his friends from the detention center have escaped and attached themselves to him.  One is slow-witted, gentle, generous, and comes from a wealthy family.  The other is a charming scamp who has had to survive abusive parents and a life on the run.  From that moment throughout the novel, these two friends drive Emmett and Billy’s lives.

There is a “girl next door” Sally, whom Emmett decides to leave out of his story.  But she is determined to work her way into it.  And then there is eight year old Billy, who is a bit of a mystic visionary.  He is well read, neurotic, and uncannily observant, and he stabilizes his brother and the other characters in the story.

The Lincoln Highway is Billy’s thing.  As he reads about the adventures and journeys of mythic and real heroes, he wants to find his own place in life by going on such a journey.  And he wants others to have heroic journeys as well.  The Lincoln Highway goes through Nebraska (it was the first continental highway built in the U.S. and is roughly what we know as Interstate 80 today, going from New York to San Francisco.)  Billy soon identify’s the Lincoln Highway as the venue for rebirth for himself and everyone else he knows in the story.  

It takes the brothers a long time to finally get on the Lincoln Highway.  Their ten day ordeal trying to get started on it is the setting of the novel.  The story includes compelling characters who draw you in, humor, a high degree of craziness that will necessitate suspension of disbelief now and then, suspense, twists and turns, sorrow, and relief.

Woods, Stuart, Grass Roots (political, crime novel)

Once in a while I like to put my mind in neutral and just go escape for the ride.  In this case, I let Stuart Woods help me disappear into his political thriller.  Grass Roots was written 32 years ago about a Georgia lawyer running for a senate seat in that state.  The novel itself has become an historical time piece:  it is assumed that a Democrat will win election in Georgia, it is pre-9/11, it is at the very beginning of DNA testing in criminal cases, and it comes from a time when those who lost close elections bowed out afterward, even if they were sleaze-bags.  

The story strains credibility, but I gave all that a pass because I just wanted to live in its narrative, full of political suspense, courtroom drama, assassination of candidates, hot sex scenes, fragile romances, and gunfights.  

It’s the first Will Lee novel I read, and when I’m ready for an escape from reality, I’ll likely listen to another.

Strout, Elizabeth, My Name Is Lucy Barton (novel)

I read this novel because it is the first of a trilogy, and my eye caught the other two books, so I decided to read this first. I probably won’t go on to read the other two, unless I get more incentive.

This novel has no plot, but rather focuses on the muted feelings of Lucy Barton, who spends most of the novel with her mother sitting at her feet. The two of them have little dialogue. They occasionally remember back to people and places they shared, but there is little sense of love between them, even though they both profess it. Their professions lack credibility.

As Lucy Barton tells bits and pieces of her story, I felt sad for her, but not empathetic. This was strange because I am usually very quick with empathy. Perhaps it was a technique of the author, to put me into the same relationship with Lucy as her mother seems to have. I spent the whole book listening to her story, not really hearing enough of it to understand her, and not really motivated to find out more.