Last week, on International Women’s Day, my husband and I, along with a full auditorium of other fans, attended “An Evening with Louise Erdrich.” Not exactly an intimate event, but how good to be in her presence.
I have read most of her books, but can imagine re-reading several, especially The Sentence and The Nightwatchman, which my husband is re-reading now. And Love Medicine, which was published in 1984 and was the first of an eight book series. One of the books mentioned that evening was Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country: Traveling Through the Land of My Ancestors (2003), which is a blend of history, mythology, and memoir. I remember being entranced by that book and wish I still had my copy. Now why didn’t I buy another copy when we made a long overdue return visit last week to Erdrich’s bookstore, Birchbark Books in Minneapolis?
I guess I was just too overwhelmed as I found several books on my TBR list. I guess I will just have to return soon. Such a problem! Here’s what did come home with me:
Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light, 50 Poems for 50 Years by Joy Harjo. Harjo, who is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, was the nation’s poet laureate from 2019 to 2023. I loved her memoir Poet Warrior–another book for the re-read list. I am keeping this book in the snug and each time before settling into read whatever is my current book, I read a couple poems in this book. Only after I read about 10 of the poems did I realize that at the end of the book Harjo has included notes about each poem, giving the context and notes about her process. I have decided to begin the book again and this time read the notes, too.
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez.
The Swimmers byJulie Otsuko who wrote The Buddha in the Attic (2011), which I remember loving.
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak.
The Long-Shining Waters by Danielle Sosin. I am especially eager to read this book for it is about three women living on the shores of Lake Superior at different times in history. I only heard recently about this book, which was published in 2011 by Milkweed and won their national fiction prize. It sounds wonderful. Maybe I need a reading retreat to the North Shore.
After making our purchases we had lunch right next door at The Kenwood, one of our favorite restaurants.
Such a good day!
Have you read any books by Louise Erdrich? If so, what are your favorite’s? I would love to know.
In last week’s Book Report I mentioned the book A Friend Sails in on a Poem by Molly Peacock, which I enjoyed, but then also remembered how much I loved the two biographies Peacock wrote, The Paper Garden, An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (2010) and also Flower Diary, In Which Mary Hiester Reid Paints, Travels, Marries and Opens a Door. (2021)
I want to re-read both of these books and added them to the “Books to Re-read” list in my book journal.
More and more I feel drawn to re-reading favorite books or immersing myself in the entire backlist of a favorite authors like Barbara Kingsolver or Ann Patchett or Jon Hassler.
Often reading a new book leads me to the desire to re-read an earlier book by the same author. For example, I loved The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell and now I want to re-read Hamnet. Or if a book I loved is mentioned on a podcast about books and reading, I sigh and think “Oh, I want to read that again.” That happened this week when I listened to the most recent episode on “What Should I Read Next?” (episode 370) when the host Anne Bogel suggested Plainsong by Kent Haruf to her guest.
Dusting my bookshelves has become a problem for me, because I see books I want to read again, Like The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt and A Lost Lady by Willa Cather or Fresh Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin or A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles or The Sentence by Louise Erdrich or Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy or….. (The solution is to NOT dust!)
Over the years I have re-read all the Jane Austen books. Pride and Prejudice several times. And in 2021 I read all of the Louise Penney books written to that point, and I know I would enjoy reading them again. My fingers are twitching as titles come flooding in my brain.
I consider not reading newly released books and only re-reading favorite books, but then there is the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) side of me. How could I not read the new book by Jacqueline Winspear, The White Lady, coming out later this month? And I am eager to read I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makai because I loved her earlier book, The Great Believers.
I have this ongoing battle between my TBR list and my Re-Read list. I play games with myself: I will re-read one favorite book for every three new (at least to me) titles on my list, but then books I have requested from the library suddenly are available or our weekly roaming just happens to include the stop at a bookstore. Or someone I trust mentions a new book they loved, and I add it to my TBR list.
What am I doing writing this post? I need to stop immediately and read. What am I doing requesting more and more titles–mainly new ones from the library, when I have all these books here on my shelves? And why do I love going to independent bookstores, knowing I will walk to the check-out counter with a fresh stack of books when I have piles waiting for me at home?
Well, Nancy, this is a first world problem. Relax. Get over it. You will never read or re-read all the books you want to.
Last night I finished The Cloisters by Katy Hay, a new book which I enjoyed, but I know it is not a book I will ever re-read. There is some relief in that. But now comes the challenge? What should I read next? I have three books from the library.
2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
Leaving the Pink House by Ladette Randolph
Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Or do I re-read one of the Molly Peacock biographies? Stay tuned.
What is on your re-read list? I would love to know.
My reading month started well and ended well, and in between the books were uneven.
In an earlier post I wrote about Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng.https://wordpress.com/post/livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/1721 A glowing report of a book exquisitely written and a story powerfully told. While visiting a small new bookstore, I heard another customer say she had just finished a book that she loved and was so well-written. She was talking about Our Missing Hearts, and I joined in the conversation, agreeing completely. I have yet to meet anyone who has read the book who did not love it.
The last fiction book I read this month was Gone Like Yesterday, a debut novel by Janelle Williams, and I think this writer has the potential in future novels to attain Celeste Ng’s status. Of course, that is impossible to know, but I hope nothing gets in the way of Williams’ writing and growing and perfecting her skills. Her writing is lyrical and the plot, while involved, is interesting, as are her characters. Zahra is a young black woman who helps privileged high school students write their college admissions essays. She is introduced to Sammie, a another young woman, black, bright, nurtured by her uncle and grandmother, and also applying to colleges. When Zahra learns her brother is missing, Sammie and her uncle pose driving Zahra to Atlanta to look for him. Here’s the tricky part–the presence and sound of moths. Surrounding the car, floating above their heads. hovering in their ears. Are they real? What do they mean? A touch of magical realism. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. I think Williams tries to do too much in this book, but still I am glad I read it.
Three of the other books are mysteries: # 2 and #3 in the series by Ausma Neharat Khan about Canadian police detective Esa Khattak and his colleague Rachel Getty. Although I like, but don’t love these books, at some point I will read more in the series. The third mystery I read is part of the British Library Crime Series, Crossed Skis, An Alpine Mysteryby Carol Carnac, which was published in 1952. A well-known trope in British mysteries is the house party concept and this one is similar–a group of young people who don’t all know each other go on a skiing vacation and…. well, read it to find out.
I read two books I truly did not like, and I wonder why I finished them. I usually make quick decisions about whether to finish reading a book or not. Oh well. The first is O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker and even after reading my summary of the book in my book journal, I have little memory of the book. The other book is historical fiction by the popular writer, Marie Benedict. Perhaps I finished this because she is a writer often recommended by others, and I kept hoping I would find something redeeming in the book. The book is The Mitford Affair about the English Mitford sisters, especially Nancy, Unity, and Diana. Set on the brink of WWII, Unity and Diana are big supporters of Hitler, and they manage to become part of his inner circle. Nancy eventually and hesitantly shares with Winston Churchill — the Mitfords are distant relations — some of her sisters’ plans and efforts. I need to like at least one of the main characters in any book I read, and I didn’t like anyone in this book.
I can recommend all four nonfiction titles without hesitation–depending on your own personal interests.
Memoir as Medicine, The Healing Power of Wiring Your Messy, Imperfect, Unruly (but Gorgeously Yours) Life Story by Nancy Slonim Aronie. I try to read books about the craft of writing frequently, and a writing friend recommended this. Wonderful prompts. Great examples from her own memoir. This book inspired me to establish Writing Wednesdays for myself. Yesterday was my my fifth one, and I plan to continue that schedule.
A Friend Sails in on a Poem by Molly Peacock. I am not a poet, but I loved this memoir of the friendship between two women who are poets, Peacock and Phillis Levin. Peacock is the author of two of my all-time favorite books, both biographies, The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 and Flower Diary: in Which Mary Hiester Red Paints, Travels, Marries and Opens a Door.
Prayer in the Night, For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren. Using the words of the compline prayer (Several months ago I wrote this prayer on a small card that sits on my nightstand. Even on mights I don’t pray the words, the intention of those words lives in my heart.) Warren’s writing is simple and clear and at the same time profound, “We need practices that don’t simply palliate our fears or pain, but that teach us to walk with God in the crucible of our own fragility.” Warren shares her fragilities and encourages us to open to our own and to share them with God.
Do I Stay Christian? A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned by Brian McLaren. I actually owned this book before I bought McLaren’s previous book, Faith After Doubt, Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to do About It, but I quickly realized it was important to read Faith After Doubt first. I did that in January. Do I Stay Christian? builds on Faith After Doubt, and wow, there is much to process. Part I answers the question, “No.” Part II, “Yes,” and Part III, “How.” Part I is the most upsetting, and Part III is the most challenging. Chapters in Part II include “Because….Where Else Would I go?” “Because I’m Human,” and “Because of Our Legendary Founder.” McLaren is such a good writer (and speaker–I often listen to his podcast, “Learning to See.” ) In the Appendix to the book he writes
We are all friends around this table. All equals. All unique. All welcome. Who we are is who we are. There is no need to pretend. Some of us have a lot of beliefs and very few doubts. Some of us have a lot of doubts and very few beliefs. Some of us love God, but we’re not sure about Jesus, and some of us love Jesus, but we’re not so sure about God. Some of us aren’t sure about anything, and others feel very sure about almost everything. Some of us gladly call ourselves Christians. Some of us barely call ourselves Christians. Some of us once were Christians, but not anymore. Some of us aren’t sure we were ever Christians, or aren’t sure what that means, or whether it matters. But this we share: we welcome one another to this circle just as we are, for we all are part of one web of life on this precious planet in this amazing universe.
One last note: My husband and I visited a new bookstore in town recently and if you live in the Minneapolis/St Paul area I encourage you to stop by. The name is Comma, and it is the Linden Hills area of Minneapolis.
Anything to recommend from your February reading? I would love to know.
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, leading those of us in the Christian faith into the Lenten season. Lent seems like a good time to reflect on the role of spiritual practices in our lives. Even though I have written about and offered workshops and talks on this topic many times before, I know I can still learn more. My ongoing hope is to demystify the nature of spiritual practices and to explore ways to integrate spiritual practices into our daily lives.
Often the place I begin is in my own library. What have I underlined in books I have read? What books feel like a classic resource in my own spiritual development? What books opened me to something new? What books no longer fit my evolving faith? Which books have become a presence in my life? Which books deserve another look?
Well, it is quite a rabbit hole, but here are a few impressions and notes from my recent browsing:
Jane Vennard in Fully Awake and Truly Alive, Spiritual Practices to Nurture Your Soul introduced me to the Buddhist terms, “on-cushion practices” and “off-cushion practices,” and changed the way I think about spiritual practices. “On-cushion practices are the more intentional, formal, perhaps traditional kinds of practices like meditation and centering prayer. “Off-cushion practices” are less formal and more spontaneous experiences, like pausing to look at a sunset and feeling connected to all of creation or sending blessings when you see the neighbor children walking to school every morning. The poetry/meditations of Being Home by Gunilla Norris have helped me be aware of the many opportunities for off-cushion practices throughout my days.
from "Choosing What to Wear"
I stand by the closet door
barefooted before this choice.
When I pick now I want to remember
that You have picked me--
no self-made woman, but one brought forth
by the lives that have gone before me,
lives that have made mine possible...
from the first single-celled creatures,
those ancient ancestors,
to the dear ones I call parents.
Liturgy of the Ordinary, Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren also starts with the possibilities for spiritual practice in each day, the overlooked moments and routines, like sitting in traffic or checking email. She examines these moments as doorways to the sacred and to living a life of deeper awareness of the holy.
I want to learn how to spend time over my inbox, laundry, and tax forms, yet, mysteriously, always on my knees, offering up my work as a prayer to the God who blesses and sends.
I have consulted and even re-read in their entirety several of these books, including An Altar in the World, A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor and two of Christine Valters Paintner’s books, The Soul’s Slow Ripening, 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred and The Soul of a Pilgrim, Eight Practices for the Journey Within. All three of these books have become sacred texts for me.
Whoever you are, you are human. Wherever you are, you live in the world, which is just waiting for you to notice the holiness in it. So welcome to your own priesthood, practices at the altar of your own life. The good news is that you have everything you need to begin.
An Altar in the World, p xvii
Some of the books I have had on my shelves for a long time, and they continue to inform and inspire me. I think I bought Tilden Edwards’ Living in the Presence, Spiritual Exercises to Open Our Lives to the Awareness of God when I was in spiritual direction training in the 90’s–one of those basic texts. Not as dense, lighter, but no less wise is A Sacred Primer, The Essential Guide to Quiet Time and Prayer by Elizabeth Harper Neeld. Another title that has served me well is Living Faith Day By Day, How the Sacred Rules of Monastic Traditions Can Help You Live Spiritually in the Modern World by Debra K. Farrington. Farrington approaches spiritual practices from the structure of creating a rule of life for one’s life. That may sound daunting, but she makes it approachable and desirable.
The topic continues to be relevant, and I continue to add books to my collection, including Pilgrim Principles, Journeying with Intention in Everyday Life by Lacy Clark Ellman,The Wild Land Within, Cultivating Wholeness Through Spiritual Practice by Lisa Colon Delay, and another with an intriguing title, Desperately Seeking Spirituality, A Field Guide to Practice by Meredith Gould. Each one of these books feels like a generous and welcoming companion. One more –a book I have acquired, but not yet read, Essential Spirituality, The 7 Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind, by Roger Walsh. Stay tuned for a further evaluation.
Several of the books refer to spiritual practices that include specific ways the body is a tool for care of the soul, but one book stands out, Spiritual Exercises, Joining Body and Spirit in Prayer by Nancy Roth. This book reminds us that walking and doing Pilates and yoga and T’ai Chi and dancing and receiving a massage are also ways to experience the movement of God.
My library includes separate shelves with books on aging and spirituality. Several of those titles address spiritual practices, including Aging as a Spiritual Practice, A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser by Lewis Richmond, A Season of Mystery, 10 Spiritual Practices for Embracing A Happier Second Half of Life by Paula Huston, and Pilgrimage into the Last Third of Life, 7 Gateways to Spiritual Growth by Jane Marie Thibault and Richard L. Morgan. I will save reflections on these books for another time.
A Gentle Reminder
As much as I love books and as much as book enriches my spiritual life, reading about spiritual practices does not substitute for practicing. Writing posts in my blog is one of my spiritual practices.
What are your spiritual practices? I would love to know.
One of my favorite writers about writing, as you can see in this stack of five books, is Eric Maisel. I have other favorites, of course. Natalie Goldberg, Anne Lamott, Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, and more recently, I loved the book, Memoir as Medicine by Nancy Slonim Aronie. And you will see a collection of Julia Cameron books on my writing bookshelf, too.
There is something about Maisel’s books, however, that resonate with me, and I make it a point to re-read at least one of his books each year. Most often the EM book of choice is A Writer’s Paris, A Guided Journey for the Creative Soul. (2005). The book, small, easy to hold, the size of a small journal or travel guide, is a call to follow your fantasy image of yourself as a writer and where better to do that, but Paris?
What might it mean to your creative life if you included, as part of your education as a writer, a risky experience like running off to Paris to write? Something on that order may be needed to unlock the trunk and let out those thousand poems, those hundred short stories, that full shelf of novels or narrative nonfiction.
I have been to Paris just once and even sat in a cafe and wrote in my journal, but I don’t have plans to go to Paris for a writing retreat. If I did, I would take this book, which hovers between fantasy and reality, for it has practical hints for living in Paris, but also addresses ways each of us wannabe writers can live that life now. Here and now.
I write in a garret. Yes, it is in St Paul, Minnesota, USA, but somedays it is easy to think of it as a French garret in some centuries old building. I imagine walking down several flights of smooth stone stairs and crossing the street to a boulangerie, greeting the baker and buying the day’s ration of bread and then returning, walking back up those same smooth stone stairs, flight after flight, to my garret. My view today, however, is not of Parisian rooftops, but instead our garage roof and an occasional bird sitting on the electrical wire. My Paris. My here and now.
I begin to write.
And in the summer I write in a secluded small garden I call “Paris.” I sit at a bistro table and write. I can see neighbors walking by, but it is rare I am noticed. True, this little garden is not beyond the French doors of a Paris apartment, but I can pretend, and sometimes I do.
This little book reminds me to “access the Paris already inside of you. There is a Paris-of-the-mind that resides in each of us…It is available to you right now.” p. 191
I may not have gone to Paris to write, but many years ago I did go to Bainbridge Island, Washington to write, and I have given myself solo writing retreats in a cabin on one of Minnesota’s lakes, as well as writing retreats led by other writers. I have found ways to create Paris for myself, including in the garret.
Recently, I pulled Maisel’s A Writer’s Space, Make Room to Dream, to Work, to Write off my bookshelf, and the book opened to this:
The writing life is defined by the succession of choices you make, primary among them whether or not you will write.
I have been lucky over the years, no matter where we lived, to have a room of my own, but that is only part of the issue. The other aspect is creating time to write and devoting energy to do that. I looked at my calendar recently and realized that with one small change I could create Writing Wednesdays. Yesterday was my third Writing Wednesday, and I devoted the day to working on an essay about walking labyrinths.
I write on other days of the week–my twice-weekly blog posts, for example, and most mornings I write in my journal as part of my daily devotion and meditation routine, but setting apart a day to work on something that has been percolating or been in process, but set aside honors myself as a writer. How good this decision feels.
What do you need to make room for in your life? I would love to know.
NOTE: Eric Maisel is a psychotherapist, teacher, coach who focuses on helping creative and performing artists meet their emotional and practical challenges, and his list of books is long. https://ericmaisel.com
I gave my daughter this book, Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng for Christmas, knowing eventually I would get it back from her and then I could read it. Smart, huh? The word she used when she passed it on to me is “exquisite,” and it is. Every word, every sentence is perfect. Not a word wasted. Not an overblown or unnecessary sentence. Exquisite.
The book, a dystopian novel, is also chilling and upsetting.
So often dystopian novels are far-fetched, and truly stretch our imaginations, but as I read this book, I had to often remind myself that the book is fiction and not nonfiction. The references to books taken off library shelves, to the crimes against Chinese Americans, to children separated from parents at our southern borders, and to the fear and systems created to “protect” American culture are all too relevant.
The main character is Bird, a 12 year-old Chinese American boy, whose mother is a poet. Her poem “Our Missing Hearts” becomes a slogan, an icon for protesters, and she leaves her family and becomes a fugitive. Bird, after finding some clues, attempts to find her. You will fall in love with Bird.
The book also lifts the power of words and of story. And memories.
I don’t want to say more, except READ THIS BOOK, but instead I share two of my favorite passages. The first is Bird’s father’s reflections about his wife, Bird’s mother. And the second is almost at the end of the book and brought tears to my eyes.
…this unshakable belief that the world was a knowable place. That by studying its branches and byways, the tracks it had rutted in the dust, you could understand it. For her the magic was not what words had been, but what they were capable of: their ability to sketch, with one sweeping brushstroke, the contours of an experience, the form of a feeling. How could they make the ineffable, how could they hover a shape before you for an eye blink, before it dissolved into the air. And this, in turn, was what he loved about her–insatiable curiosity about the world, how for her it could never be fully unraveled, it held infinite mysteries and wonders and sometimes all you could do was stand agape, rubbing your eyes, trying to see properly.
When does she stop speaking? When are you ever done with the story of someone you love? You turn the most precious of your memories over and over, wearing their edges smooth, warming them again with your heat. You touch the curves and hollows of every detail you have, memorizing them, reciting them once more though you already know them in your bones. Who ever thinks, recalling the face of the one they loved who is gone: yes, I looked at you enough, I loved you enough, we had enough time, any of this was enough?
My one complaint about the book is the cover. Did I miss the relevance of the feather? Yes, the boy is named Bird, but the flock of birds on the cover doesn’t seem to represent him. Did those responsible for the cover art read the book? Oh well.
What books make you shout, READ THIS BOOK? I would love to know
I was in a bit of a reading slump towards the end of January. It may not look that way on paper, but I rejected several books I started and just couldn’t immerse myself in what I thought I wanted to read. Why was that I wonder? Is it because the first books I read this year, which I wrote about in earlier posts, were so good, and finding something to meet that quality just didn’t happen? Or was I simply preoccupied with other tasks? and activities that took lots of energy? Or am I building energy for something new? Am I in some sort of shifting sands time?
I’m not sure it matters, for I still read a good pile of books.
During the deepest part of COVID many people who had considered themselves devoted readers had a hard time focusing on books. That didn’t happen to me. There have been other times in my life, however, when I’ve not been able to concentrate on reading in the way that had always been normal for me. Mainly, those have been times of grief and loss, and I am paying attention to that.
January’s Last Two Books
I decided to re-read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. I can’t remember the first time I read it, but I think it was sometime post-college and probably early motherhood years. I have a vague memory of immersing myself in her books then, experiencing especially the power and relevancy of A Room of One’s Own. I often think of that when I walk up the stairs to my garret. What a privileged person I am. This time I read Mrs Dalloway for the beauty and breadth and depth of the language. Her writing makes me very aware of the importance of commas! This is a book I wish I had studied in a class, as a way to explore the layers and the layering of characters and the times they lived in.
Bomb Shelter, Love, Time and Other Explosives by Mary Laura Philpott is a book of essays. Philpott characterizes herself as a worrier, but at the same time someone who believes that “as long as she cared enough, she could keep her loved ones safe.” So much for theories: Philpott’s teenage son is diagnosed with epilepsy. And life goes on in all its joys and sorrow, fears and acceptances.
There will always be threats lurking under the water where we play, danger hiding in the attic and rolling down that street on heavy wheels, unexpected explosions in our brains and our hearts and the sky. There will always be bombs, and we will never be able to save everyone we care about. To know that and to try anyway is to be fully alive. The closest thing to shelter we can offer one another is love, as deep and wide and in as many forms as we can give it.
Now it is time to go through my TBR list and request from the library whatever most tempts me. And I will stand in front of one or more of my own bookshelves and listen to a call, “Reread me!” I’ll let you know what rises to the top.
What kind of a reading month did you have? I would love to know.
My last trip to the library was a bonanza of books. A pile I had placed on hold were waiting for me, and I returned home eager to determine which one I would read first. (Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton won, by the way–and it is a gem.)
I knew that more than likely I would decide not to read each one. I would at least read the first few pages of each one, but not more than a few pages if what I read didn’t appeal, didn’t spark interest in the characters, the writing, or the plot to come. I no longer feel obligated to read something because it is on my list or someone has recommended it or because I think it is a book I “should” read. I have a long TBR list and even though I am a fast reader and dedicate parts of everyday for reading, I know I will never read every title I want to read. (An aside: I hope when I die I have a book in my hand.)
How grateful I am for the library. I request books knowing I can test the temperature, dip my toe in, but then I can retreat to shore if the book is too cold or too warm. And then I can return the book to the library for someone else’s pleasure.
Public libraries will always be on the top of my favorites list, so when I heard about what lawmakers in North Dakota are trying to do, I could feel my own temperature begin to boil.
This proposed bill is not about protecting children or anyone else, but it is about censorship.
If you live in North Dakota or have ties to North Dakota, it is time to speak up and support the gift of freedom that public libraries offer. Wherever you live, support your public libraries and librarians.
What do you love about your public library? I would love to know.
I begin most days sitting in my Girlfriend Chair in the garret, meditating, praying, writing in my journal, and reading a book that will stretch me into deeper spiritual growth.
Currently, I am reading Faith After Doubt, Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What To Do About It by Brian D. McLaren. Each time I read one of his books or listen to his podcast, (Learning How to See with Brian McLaren, https://cac.org/podcast/learning-how-to-see/) I can almost feel my limbs being pulled, my brain enlarging, and my heart expanding. Easy reads? Not exactly, although McLaren is such a good writer, making the experience of confronting tough issues and below the surface thoughts, a pleasure. Not only does McLaren become a real person with his own challenges, but he invites the reader into the conversation. In fact, each chapter includes questions for reflection and action.
McLaren was a conservative evangelical pastor who struggled with issues of belief versus faith for many years. Eventually, he left his formal role as a congregational pastor to write (over 15 books so far) and to live his faith as an activist and public theologian. He is on the faculty of the Living School at the Center of Action and Contemplation founded by Richard Rohr.
The first book I read by McLaren was The Great Spiritual Migration, How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian (2016). I don’t know how I became aware of him–perhaps through Diana Butler Bass whose work is also important in my spiritual development. Once I had read The Great Spiritual Migration, I knew I needed to read some of his earlier books.
I read A New Kind of Christianity, Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (2010). Those ten questions continue to be relevant.
What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
How should the Bible be understood?
Is God violent?
Who is Jesus and why is he important?
What is the Gospel?
What do we do about the church?
Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
How can we translate our questions into answers?
You may think you know the answers to those questions (and maybe you do), but I invite you to read McLaren’s explorations. You will learn something new and maybe feel something new.
Next I read We Make the Road by Walking, A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (2014). Books with “spiritual formation” in the title are always a reason for me to look beyond the cover. Even though the book follows the liturgical year, I didn’t wait to read season-designated sections. I started and just kept reading, but with Lent starting soon, I may re-read those chapters under the heading “Alive in a Global Uprising.” As I look at the table of contents I note several chapters I have marked with a star: “Women on the Edge,” “Your Secret Life,”, “Moving with the Spirit,” “Spirit of Love: Loving God,” and “Spirit of Love: Loving Self.” Perhaps I need to re-read those chapters and see what so appealed to me.
I still have two unread books on my shelf by McLaren. The first is Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road, Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World ((2012). I’ll get to it, I promise, for I agree with McLaren’s premise that we need a new faith alternative built on “benevolence and solidarity rather than rivalry and hostility.”
Before reading that book, however, and as soon as I finish Faith After Doubt, I will read his latest book, Do I Stay Christian, A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned (2022). Several people I know have read this book and have encouraged me to read it, but once buying it, I realized I first needed to read Faith After Doubt, and I am almost done reading that book in which McLaren proposes a model of faith development.
Stage One: Simplicity
Stage Two: Complexity
Stage Three: Perplexity
Stage Four: Harmony
Along with defining and describing each of these stages, especially their limitations and consequences, he goes further to highlight the potential gifts of moving through the stages. He encourages faith communities to become four-stage communities because they “produce spiritual activists, harmony activists, whose faith expresses itself in socially transforming love, politically liberating love and ecologically restoring love.” (p. 184)
The operative word in Stage Four, by the way, is LOVE.
When you read a McLaren book, don’t overlook his footnotes, and have your highlighter in your hand, for you will need it.
Now back to reading the last chapter in Faith After Doubt.
It is only January 10, and I have already read a book that for sure will be on my Favorite Books of 2023 list: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell.
This is the first book I read in the new year, and it sets the standard high for my reading life this year. (An Aside: The second book was The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles and while it doesn’t surpass The Marriage Portrait, it is good, very good, indeed.)
Lucrezia is a young noble girl in 1550’s Florence, daughter of the grand duke, and she finds herself married to another duke after her older sister dies. She is intelligent, curious, an amazing artist, imaginative, active, not passive, but her role in life is to produce an heir. Her husband shows tenderness and care for her, but…
He bends at the waist and, sliding a hand around her neck, stoops and presses his lips to hers–a brief, emphatic pressure. It reminds her of her father, bringing is seal down on top of a document, marking it as his.
The characters are well-developed, as is the setting. The writing is impeccable, and as for the plot, well, I felt my heart race as I read the last few pages.
I have read other books by O’Farrell, including her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am; Seventeen Brushes with Death, and she is a writer who clearly gets better and better with each book. I remember not being excited about reading her 2020 book, Hamnet, which was about Shakespeare’s wife and young son. That was probably because as a decades ago English major and teacher, I read so much Shakespeare, but the book was a gift and all the reviews were excellent, so…. Needless to say, I loved it. Now I think I will add Hamnet to my re-read list.
Now I am reading a fun palate cleanser, Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Rayburn.
What’s your first book of 2023? I would love to know.