My apologies if you’ve already heard this story on social media: I was supposed to be in France this past weekend, but for the fourth time in a row we’ve been plagued by transport problems on a holiday: a flat tire in Wigtown, a cancelled train to Edinburgh, a cancelled flight to the States, and now car trouble so severe we couldn’t get on the ferry to Normandy. Though we made it all the way to the ferry port in Poole, our car was by then making such hideous engine noises that it would have been imprudent to drive it any further. We got a tow back to the auto shop where our car is usually serviced and currently await its prognosis. If it can be fixed, we may be able to reschedule our trip for this coming weekend.
The good news about our strange (non-)travel day: I got a jump on my Doorstopper of the Month, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, a terrific read that reminds me of a cross between Midnight’s Children and The Cider House Rules, and also started Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood – though my husband made me stop reading it because I couldn’t stop sniggering while he was trying to make important phone calls about the car. We ended up having a nice weekend at home anyway: going out for Nepalese food, gelato and a screening of The Favorite; doing some gardening and getting bits of work and writing done; and (of course) doing plenty of reading. Waking up with a purring cat on my legs and tucking into a stack of pancakes with maple syrup, I thought to myself, being home is pretty great, too.
Reading Ireland Month 2019
This will be my second time participating in the annual challenge hosted by Cathy of 746 Books. I recently started The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen and I’m also currently reading two nonfiction books by Irish women: a review copy of Vagina: A Re-Education by Lynn Enright (which releases on March 7th) and the essay collection Notes to Self by Emilie Pine, on my Kindle. I have several other novels to choose from – two of which are set in Ireland rather than by Irish authors – plus a classic travel book by Dervla Murphy.
Wellcome Book Prize
The second of my ‘assigned’ longlist reviews will be going up on Wednesday. I’m currently reading another three books from the longlist and will post some brief thoughts on them if I manage to finish them before the shortlist announcement on the 19th. At that point I will have read 10 out of the 12 books on the longlist, so should feel pretty confident about making predictions (or at least stating wishes) for what will go through to the next round.
I have two blog tours coming up later in the month, including the official one that’s being run for the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist.
I’ve got a pile-up of review copies that came out in February or are releasing early this month – 9, I think? Some I’ve already read and some are still in progress. So I will be doing my best to group these sensibly and write short reviews, but you may well notice a lot of posts from me.
This Friday marks four years that I’ve been blogging about books!
Here are a few March releases I’ve read that you may want to look out for:
Sing to It: New Stories by Amy Hempel [releases on the 26th]: “When danger approaches, sing to it.” That Arabian proverb provides the title for Amy Hempel’s fifth collection of short fiction, and it’s no bad summary of the purpose of the arts in our time: creativity is for defusing or at least defying the innumerable threats to personal expression. Only roughly half of the flash fiction achieves a successful triumvirate of character, incident and meaning. The author’s passion for working with dogs inspired the best story, “A Full-Service Shelter,” set in Spanish Harlem. A novella, Cloudland, takes up the last three-fifths of the book and is based on the case of the “Butterbox Babies.” (Reviewed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)
The Cook by Maylis de Kerangal (translated from the French by Sam Taylor) [releases on the 26th]: This is a pleasant enough little book, composed of scenes in the life of a fictional chef named Mauro. Each chapter picks up with the young man at a different point as he travels through Europe, studying and working in various restaurants. If you’ve read The Heart / Mend the Living, you’ll know de Kerangal writes exquisite prose. Here the descriptions of meals are mouthwatering, and the kitchen’s often tense relationships come through powerfully. Overall, though, I didn’t know what all these scenes are meant to add up to. Kitchens of the Great Midwest does a better job of capturing a chef and her milieu.
Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor [releases on the 12th]: After she left the pastorate, Taylor taught Religion 101 at Piedmont College, a small Georgia institution, for 20 years. This book arose from what she learned about other religions – and about Christianity – by engaging with faith in an academic setting and taking her students on field trips to mosques, temples, and so on. She emphasizes that appreciating other religions is not about flattening their uniqueness or looking for some lowest common denominator. Neither is it about picking out what affirms your own tradition and ignoring the rest. It’s about being comfortable with not being right, or even knowing who is right.
What’s on your reading docket for March?
This week of the month-long challenge is hosted by JulzReads. I’m a total memoir junkie and gravitate towards ones written by women: sometimes those whose lives are completely different to mine (medical crises, parenting, etc.) and sometimes those who’ve had experiences similar to mine (moving to a new country, illness and dysfunction in the family, etc.).
In my late teens I fell into a crisis of faith that lasted for many years – or maybe is still ongoing – and planted the seed for my Master’s thesis on women’s faith and doubt narratives in Victorian fiction. I’m always looking out for memoirs that discuss religious conversion, doubt, or loss of faith.
I know we don’t all share the same obsessions. (The bookish world would be boring if we did!) It’s possible this topic doesn’t interest you at all. But if it does, or if you’d like to test the waters, here are 15 or so relevant reads that have stood out for me; I think I’ve only written about a few of them on here in the past.
[Note: I highly recommend any autobiographical writing by Anne Lamott, Madeleine L’Engle, and Kathleen Norris; although all three write/wrote about faith, their engagement with doubt doesn’t quite feel specific enough to get them a spot on this list.]
Recommended from This Year’s Reading
Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler: An assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, Bowler was fascinated by prosperity theology: the idea that God’s blessings reward righteous living and generous giving to the church. If she’d been tempted to set store by this notion, that certainty was permanently fractured when she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in her mid-thirties. Bowler writes tenderly about suffering and surrender, and about living in the moment with her husband and son while being uncertain of the future, in a style reminiscent of Anne Lamott and Nina Riggs.
The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen: Opening Your Eyes to Wonder by Lisa Gungor: Like many Gungor listeners, Lisa grew up in, and soon outgrew, a fundamentalist Christian setting. She married Michael Gungor at the absurdly young age of 19 and they struggled with infertility and world events. When their second daughter was born with Down syndrome and required urgent heart surgery, it sparked further soul searching and a return to God, but this time within a much more open spirituality that encircles and values everyone – her gay neighbors, her disabled daughter; the ones society overlooks.
In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult by Rebecca Stott: This is several things: a bereavement memoir that opens with Stott’s father succumbing to cancer and eliciting her promise to finish his languishing memoirs; a family memoir tracking generations in England, Scotland and Australia; and a story of faith and doubt, of the absolute certainty experienced inside the Exclusive Brethren (a sect that numbers 45,000 worldwide) and how that cracked until there was no choice but to leave. Stott grew up with an apocalyptic mindset. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she learned to trust her intellect and admit doubts.
Educated by Tara Westover: You might be tired of hearing about this book, but it really does deserve the hype. Westover’s is an incredible story of testing the limits of perseverance and sanity. After an off-grid, extremist Mormon upbringing in Idaho, hard work took her from almost complete ignorance to a Cambridge PhD. She writes with calm authority, channeling the style of the scriptures and history books that were formative in her upbringing and education. This is one of the most powerful and well-written memoirs I’ve ever read.
Recent Releases (all came out on Nov. 13th)
A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel: From rural Indiana and an apocalyptic Christian cult to New York City and Orthodox Judaism by way of studies in Jerusalem: Himsel has made quite the religious leap. She was one of 11 children and grew up in the Worldwide Church of God (reminiscent of the Exclusive Brethren from Stott’s book). Although leaving a cult is easy to understand, what happens next feels more like a random sequence of events than a conscious choice; maybe I needed some more climactic scenes.
Why Religion? A Personal Story by Elaine Pagels: Pagels is a religion scholar known for her work on the Gnostic Gospels. As a teen she joined a friend’s youth group and answered the altar call at a Billy Graham rally. Although she didn’t stick with Evangelicalism, spirituality provided some comfort when her son died of pulmonary hypertension at age six and her physicist husband Heinz fell to his death on a hike in Colorado little more than a year later. She sees religion’s endurance as proof that it plays a necessary role in human life.
When I Spoke in Tongues: A Story of Faith and Its Loss by Jessica Wilbanks: Like me, Wilbanks grew up attending a Pentecostal-style church in southern Maryland. I recognized the emotional tumult of her trajectory – the lure of power and certainty; the threat of punishment and ostracism – as well as some of the specifics of her experience. Captivated by the story of Enoch Adeboye and his millions-strong Redemption Camps, she traveled to Nigeria to research the possible Yoruba roots of Pentecostalism in the summer of 2010.
Read Some Time Ago
Not That Kind of Girl by Carlene Bauer: A bookish, introspective adolescent, Bauer was troubled by how fundamentalism denied the validity of secular art. All the same, Christian notions of purity and purpose stuck with her throughout her college days in Baltimore and then when she was trying to make it in publishing in New York City. Along the way she flirted with converting to Catholicism. What Bauer does best is to capture a fleeting mindset and its evolution into a broader way of thinking.
The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis: In a graceful and painfully honest memoir, Mirvis goes back and forth in time to contrast the simplicity – but discontentment – of her early years of marriage with the disorientation she felt after divorcing her husband and leaving Orthodox Judaism. Anyone who has wrestled with faith or other people’s expectations will appreciate this story of finding the courage to be true to yourself.
Between Gods by Alison Pick: At a time of transition – preparing for her wedding and finishing her first novel, set during her Holocaust – the author decided to convert to Judaism, the faith of her father’s Czech family. Ritual was her way into Judaism: she fasted for Yom Kippur and took her father to synagogue on the anniversary of her grandfather’s death, but also had the fun of getting ready for a Purim costume party.
Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing by Reba Riley: Riley was a Pentecostal-leaning fundamentalist through high school, but turned her back on it in college. Yet she retained a strong spiritual compass that helped her tap into the energy of the “Godiverse.” She concocted the idea of experiencing 30 different religious traditions before she turned 30, and spent 2011–12 visiting a Hindu temple, a Buddhist meditation center, a mosque, a synagogue, a gathering of witches, and a range of Christian churches.
Girl Meets God: A Memoir by Lauren F. Winner: Some people just seem to have the religion gene. That’s definitely true of Winner, who was as enthusiastic an Orthodox Jew as she later was a Christian after the conversion that began in her college years. Like Anne Lamott, Winner draws on anecdotes from everyday life and very much portrays herself as a “bad Christian,” one who struggles with the basics like praying and finding a church community and is endlessly grateful for the grace that covers her shortcomings.
When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman: Zierman was a poster girl for Evangelicalism in her high school years. After attending Christian college, she and her husband spent a lonely year teaching English in Pinghu, China. Things got worse before they got better, but eventually she made her way out of depression through therapy, antidepressants and EMDR treatments, marriage counselling, a dog, a home of their own, and – despite the many ways she’d been hurt and let down by “Church People” over the years – a good-enough church.
Read but Not Reviewed
Fleeing Fundamentalism by Carlene Cross
Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor
On my TBR Stack
Not pictured: (on Nook) Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther; (on Kindle) Shunned by Linda A. Curtis and Cut Me Loose by Leah Vincent. Also, I got a copy of Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood for my birthday, but I’m not clear to what extent it’s actually about her religious experiences.
Could you see yourself reading any of these books?
Every once in a while you’ll hear someone claim that a certain book will change your life. I think of a scene in Garden State, still one of my favorite movies of all time, where Natalie Portman’s character tells Zach Braff’s character “this song will change your life” and puts The Shins’ “New Slang” on his headphones. (Ok, it’s a good song, but not that great.)
Are there any books that have literally changed my life? I can think of a handful that have been extremely influential on my worldview and, in a couple of cases, also changed my behavior. As it happens, they’re all nonfiction.
After I got back to the States from my year abroad, I spent a few years doing some intensive reading about progressive Christianity (it was sometimes also called the emergent church) and other religions, trying to decide if it was worth sticking with the faith I’d grown up in. Although I still haven’t definitively answered this for myself, and have drifted in and out of lots of churches over the last 12 years, two authors were key to me never ditching Christianity entirely: Brian McLaren and Marcus Borg.
McLaren founded the church we attend whenever we’re back in Maryland and is the author of over a dozen theology titles, including the New Kind of Christian trilogy of allegorical novels. For me his best book is A New Kind of Christianity, which pulls together all his recurrent themes. Borg, who died in 2015, wrote several books that made a big impression on me, but none more so than The Heart of Christianity, which is the best single book I’ve found about what Christianity can and should be, going back to Jesus’ way of peace and social justice and siphoning off the unhelpful doctrines that have accumulated over the centuries.
Any number of other Christian books and authors have been helpful to me over the years (Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner, How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins, Falling Upward by Richard Rohr, An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor, Without Buddha I Could Not be a Christian by Paul Knitter, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford, and various by Kathleen Norris, Rowan Williams, Richard Holloway and Anne Lamott), reassuring me that it’s not all hellfire/pie in the sky mumbo-jumbo for anti-gay Republicans, but Borg and McLaren were there at the start of my journey.
Reading is my primary means of examining society as well as my own life, so it’s no wonder that I have turned to books to learn from some gender pioneers. Hanne Blank’s accessible social history Straight (2012) is particularly valuable for its revelation of the surprisingly short history of heterosexuality as a concept – the term has only existed since the 1860s. But the book that most helped me adjust my definitions of gender and broaden my tolerance was Conundrum by Jan Morris (1974).
James Morris, born in 1926, was a successful reporter, travel writer, husband and father. Yet all along he knew he was meant to be female; it was something he had sensed for the first time as a young child sitting under the family piano: “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl … the conviction was unfaltering from the start.” In 1954 he began taking hormones to start his transition to womanhood, completed by a sex reassignment surgery in Morocco in 1972. This exceptional memoir of sex change evokes the swirl of determination and doubt, as well as the almost magical process of metamorphosing from one thing to another. Morris has been instrumental in helping me see sexuality as a continuum rather than a fixed entity.
Apart from Michael Pollan, can you guess who’s had the greatest influence on my eating habits? You might be surprised to learn it’s American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. In 2009 he published a provocative book called Eating Animals. I’m still surprised by how powerful and challenging I found it, considering that I knew pretty much what to expect: anti-meat rhetoric from a trendy vegetarian, with plenty of arresting statistics and horrifying behind-the-scenes accounts of factory farming and slaughter. But I set aside my jaded approach to potential propaganda and let it all saturate me, and it was devastating.
The fact that I still haven’t completely given up meat is proof of how difficult it is to change, even once you’ve been convicted. We’ve gone from eating meat occasionally to almost never, and then mostly when we’re guests at other people’s houses. But if I really reminded myself to think about where my food was coming from, I’m sure we’d be even more hardline. Foer didn’t answer all my questions – what about offal and wild game, and why not go all the way to veganism? – but I appreciated that he never characterizes the decision to be vegetarian as an easy one. He recognizes the ways food is bound up with cultural traditions and family memories, but still thinks being true to one’s principles outweighs all. (He’s brave enough to suggest to middle America that it’s time to consider a turkey-free Thanksgiving!)
There’s nothing more routine than brushing your teeth, and I never thought I would learn a new way to do it at age 32! But that’s just what Ignore Your Teeth and They’ll Go Away by Sheldon Dov Sydney gave me. He advises these steps: (1) brushing with a dry brush to remove bits of food and plaque, (2) flossing, and (3) brushing with toothpaste as a polish and to freshen breath. It takes a little bit longer than your usual quick brush and thus I can’t often be bothered to do it, but it does always leave my mouth feeling super-clean.
I frequently succumb to negative self-talk, thinking “I can’t cope” or “There’s no way I could…” Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers helped me see that I need to be more positive in my thought life. Originally published in 1987, the self-help classic says that at the base of every fear is a belief that “I can’t handle it.” Our fears are either of things that can happen to us (aging and natural disasters) or actions we might take (going back to school or changing jobs). You can choose to hold fear with either pain (leading to paralysis) or power (leading to action). This is still a struggle for me, but whenever I start to think “I can’t” I try to replace it with Jeffers’ mantra, “Whatever it is, I’ll handle it.”
Can you think of any books that have literally changed your life?
This is only the second theology book I’ve reviewed here, after Joan Chittister’s Between the Dark and the Daylight in May 2015. I requested John Pritchard’s Something More from SPCK after reading a leaflet about it at Bloxham Festival, thinking it sounded like a relevant, non-preachy approach to the spiritual side of life. And that is indeed what I found. It’s a book stuffed full of relatable themes under one overarching topic: the moments that cause us to question whether there is more to life than what we see and do in the everyday.
Each chapter has many of the familiar elements of a short sermon: opening prompts, personal or borrowed anecdotes, exposition of a theme, quotations from the Bible and other writers or poets, and life application questions. At times I felt Pritchard was too reliant on quotes from other authors, meaning I didn’t get a particular sense of his own style. However, like an Anglican sermon, each chapter is something you can work through in 10 or 15 minutes – understandable, solidly put together, and with plenty of take-home messages.
Some examples of the chapter-by-chapter themes are suffering, social justice, the arts, and the search for stillness and wonder. There are a few slightly overlapping pieces that might have been combined, but that would have altered the digestible format. A recurring image is of the church building as a tranquil place of holiness and power – no matter if you view it religiously or not. Whether Pritchard is discussing pain or poetry, his tactic is always to expose hints of the supernatural. “To describe the Bruch violin concerto as the product of horse hair scraping over catgut doesn’t feel adequate. There’s more to be said,” he writes.
That word “more” is the book’s clarion call, encouraging readers to look deeper into every situation for sparks of light that point to God. SPCK is a venerable Christian publishing company and Pritchard is a retired Bishop of Oxford, so it’s clear where the book is coming from. Its assumptions may not reflect your own, as Pritchard is well aware. He remembers being in a hospital in London and telling his nurse about the book he was planning. “The entire Christian world-view is probably a foreign country to my nurse,” he realized, which encouraged him to avoid religious jargon and keep it simple and applicable here.
I think everyone can relate to the circumstances Pritchard sets out at the beginning of the book: “Life is OK in an OK kind of way but it fails the test of ecstasy or lament. It rolls on in a safe, middling register, but it feels as if there should be more. … In the meantime we get on with secondary things, with our habits of low hope.” If you dare to think there must be more to life than going to work and paying the bills and want to explore what might be out there, I’d recommend picking this up alongside books by some of the other terrific writers Pritchard quotes, such as Brian McLaren, Marcus Borg, and Barbara Brown Taylor.
With thanks to Sarah Head at SPCK for sending a free copy for review.
Joan Chittister is a Benedictine nun and author of over 50 books of theology. Somehow I had never heard of her before I requested this title from Blogging for Books. Between the Dark and the Daylight, which came out in February, strikes me as a work of practical spirituality with a self-help bent. It’s not very religion-specific; in fact, Jesus is only mentioned four times, and the word “Christian” appears just once.
Based on the title, I was expecting something like Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, which is more about metaphors of darkness and how times of doubt and suffering may actually be helpful for people of faith. Although there is likely some overlap between the two, Chittister’s subtitle – Embracing the Contradictions of Life – gives a better idea of what her book is about. Her focus on oxymorons and pairs of opposites spurs readers to re-evaluate and redefine experiences that are always envisioned as negative: frustration, confusion, loss, solitude, and doubt (in this last she reminds me of Peter Rollins).
“To the average person whose life is exemplary most of all for its ordinariness—to people like you and me, for instance—it is what goes on inside of us that matters for the healthy life and real spirituality. … Whatever it is that we harbor in the soul throughout the nights of our lives is what we will live out during the hours of the day.”
Chittister takes emotions seriously, but at the same time she gently nudges us to look below the surface and ask what’s really going on within.
In Chapter 2, “The Delusion of Frustration,” for example, she insists that “Frustration is a cover-up for something we have yet to face in ourselves. … It’s what we use to explain the sour or pouty or demanding or manipulative attitudes we have developed. It is the right we assert to be less than we are capable of being.”
Rather than seeing uncertainty as negative, we should consider it as fostering “the spirit of invention and possibility”: “Life is about participating in the fine art of finding ourselves—our talents, our confidence, our sense of self, our purpose in life.”
Rather than letting failure drive us into despair, we must “pursue the possible in the imperfect,” for “hope lies in taking what we have … and using every heartbeat within us to turn it into something worthwhile.” As Churchill once said, “Success is bounding from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
“The Creativity of Confusion” and “The Liberation in Loss” are two more stand-out chapters, with too many quotable lines to mention here.
This book has been quite inspirational for me. It’s refreshing to see that Chittister doesn’t advocate mute resignation to what life/God/Fate has in store for us; “it is as much our responsibility to shape life as it is for life to shape us.” I especially appreciated her advice to “Plant yourself where you know you can bloom.”
If I were being critical, I might say that her prose is a little repetitive and too reliant on quotes and anecdotes from external sources. She is certainly more focused on ideas than on writing style. This is a common complaint I have about theology books: if academic, they’re inaccessible; if popular, they’re averagely written.
Nevertheless, I think Chittister’s work will be revelatory for a lot of people. And you don’t have to be a Catholic, or even a Christian, to find wisdom here. (My NetGalley request to read the book was initially declined because I’m not a Catholic blogger, a curious instance of narrow, discriminatory thinking.) Anyone who wants to pursue a life of joy and purpose – who dares to believe that life could be more than a cycle of frustration and hopelessness – will want to give this a read.