A Loving Tribute to the Bible

I received a complimentary review copy of Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again from the publisher through a Twitter post. I am working on reading the Bible this year, and the book seemed a good fit.

Author Rachel Held Evans frames the book with her own story of growing up with the Bible as a magic book with wonderful stories. As she got older, the Bible became more of a weapon, not to be questioned. But, eventually, she saw beneath the magic to the gritty realism: Abraham willingly tying his son to the pyre, Joshua’s army slaughtering men, women and children when the walls of Jericho fall, and God sending flood waters to destroy humanity. Yet, even as she began to turn away from the Bible, its stories continued to surround her. It is a foundational book for Western culture, influencing Shakespeare and Civil Rights activists alike.

Each chapter of the book opens with a story that reflects the theme in the coming chapter. The chapters focus on various types of stories found in the Bible including origin, deliverance, and resistance stories as well as others. She embraces the complexities and contradictions in the Bible, pointing out that it can be used to support almost any point of view:

This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, what does this say? but what am I looking for? I suspect Jesus knew this when he said, “Ask and it will be given to you; and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7)

Evans does not check her criticism of the United States and its treatment of the poor and oppressed. She extends that criticism to the white American church, which she believes has “chosen the promise of power over prophetic voice.” She describes modern day prophets who are pushing the church to live a more Christ like existence, resisting the organizational structure that has been built around the simple message of love and peace. She believes modern day resistance is needed in order to reclaim the magic of the Bible.

Yet, she also celebrates the God the Bible reveals in the details of the Parables: “I love these details because they reveal to me a God who is immersed in creation, deeply embedded within the lives of God’s beloved. Ours is a God who know how to mend clothes and bake bread, a God familiar with the planting and harvesting season, the traditions of bridesmaids, and the tickle of wool on the back of the neck.”

I am looking forward to heading back to the Bible with Evans’ prose in my mind: looking for my own magic in this book that has been part of my life.

Lives Transformed: Paris By the Book

Losing, searching, finding and, ultimately, transforming: these themes twine together in Paris By the Book as Leah and her daughters, Ellie and Daphne, move from Milwaukee to Paris to look for their missing husband and father, Robert. At the beginning, they share a belief that they are following clues he has left for them. But as they settle into life without him in Paris as bookshop owners, Leah discovers that the girls are still actively looking for him even as she begins to learn to live without him as the first anniversary of his disappearance looms.

The novel takes advantage of coincidence that seems to border on magical, a concern addressed in the early page of the book. Robert, an author, uses coincidence in his writing while Leah suggests “it was barely plausible in his novels for kids and wholly out of place in his adult work.” The author, Liam Callanan, is being coy, as at that moment, on their last day in Paris, coincidence drives the story, perhaps part of the magic of Paris?

Because Paris is more than simply a setting for the story; it plays an essential role as it was home to Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of Madeline, and Albert Lamorisse, creator of The Red Balloon. Both Ellie and Daphne absorbed the love of these works from Leah and Robert and their Paris experiences are shaped by that love and technical knowledge. And, it is the setting of Robert’s next book, although Leah does not know that until after she has begun her new life.

Beyond the fantasy and “vertigo” of Paris, as Leah calls it, this is the story of a family, one that, as Leah is reminded at one point, had memories and dreams. Robert takes to the role of father in creative and supportive ways…when he is home. But his more frequent absences for “writeaways” have begun to fray the edges of the marriage and even the fabric of the family itself.

And at its core, this is Leah’s story. She is an honest narrator, willing to share her contradictions and failures, one who, as her therapist points out, uses humor to deal with life. Her fierce love for and pride in her daughters as they deal with their loss and their new found lives is a recurring theme, and no matter what happens with Robert, we know the three of them will be okay. They have allowed tragedy to transform them rather than defeat them.

Gods of Howl Mountain: Raw Realism in 1950s Appalachia

I received an advance reader’s copy of Gods of Howl Mountain through NetGalley. Set in the 1950s in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains, the novel focuses on Granny May and her grandson Rory as they struggle to come to terms with a traumatic past that has left Rory’s mother and her daughter locked up in an insane asylum.

The opening scenes of the novel offer a view of what might seem a stereotypical mountain grandmother, rocking and smoking on the porch of her cabin. But while she does seem to be everyone’s granny, offering mountain remedies for ailments and tending to her grandson and his friend, she also wields a shotgun with ease and has her own past to contend with. Plus, she isn’t above a bit of malicious fun when it comes to those who judge her.

Rory, her grandson, home from the Korean War minus a leg, works in the moonshine trade, dodging the revenuers and locals in his big Ford. He is a somewhat reluctant participant but it is the work available to him. One night, he stumbles upon a group of frenzied Pentecostals worshipping in an old garage, speaking in tongues and handling snakes. The scenes of the church have a surreal quality as we move into the crowd with Rory, mesmerized by the chanting and dancing.

The novel itself seems to pulse with the life of the mountains and Taylor Brown uses rich prose to describe people and places. It threatens every so often to spill over into excess but Brown manages to keep control, much like his main characters controls the big Ford. His world is one of raw life: violence, sex, love, grief all rolled into complex characters.

Tracking Down the Templars

James Becker takes on one of history’s greatest mysteries: what happened to the treasures of the Knights of Templar after their demise at the hands of a Pope and a King? In the third book in his The Hounds of God trilogy, we continue on the trail of the treasure with antiquarian book seller Robin Jessop and encryption expert David Mallory as they work to decipher the clues left over 700 years before while dodging both Medieval bobby traps and contemporary bad guys who want the treasure for themselves.

Becker has mastered the art of the page turner: a plot driven story with interesting characters. Even the bad guys get some back story. I did fine myself laughing a bit at them as they can be a bit dull and seem to be easily outwitted by amateurs. As with most bad guys, they are bad shots, too.

Some parts of the book related to cyphers got a little long as Brecker tried to explain somewhat detailed processes. I felt like I wanted a few more illustrations of what Robin and David were doing. The ones that were included really helped a novice to deciphering understand what they were doing.

I’ve just ordered the first two books in the series. I was able to read and understand The Templar Brotherhood without having read the other two books but I am looking forward to filling in some of the gaps.

Having finished all the Steve Berry “Cotton Malone” books, I am excited to find James Becker on my list!

NOTE: I was provided a preview copy of this book through NetGalley. It will be published October 3, 2017.

Reading, Reading, Reading

I am on a bit of a staycation: home with only a little work on the plate. A bit of baking, some cleaning, and lots of reading, almost a book a day.

Here are a few quick reviews of some of the most recent reads:


Nora Webster tells the story of a newly widowed woman left with four children in 1970s Ireland. She struggles against impending poverty even as she finds her new place in her community, a small town where every change is noted and commented upon, from getting a new hairstyle to joining a club. There is a rawness to the book that reflects the rawness of Nora’s feelings. She can be sharp at times. But, Nora grows into her own throughout the novel, learning to not care about what other think about her actions, not being afraid to speak up when her needs are not being met and rediscovering a love for music that promises to enrich her life.

Bellman & Black tells the story of a man who spends his life paying the price for a childhood mistake. To the amazement of his friends, William Bellman kills a rook with an impossible shot. The boys celebrate and then move on with their lives. Bellman works hard to create a successful life and family until tragedy strikes. The second half of the novel tells a more mysterious, chilling tale as Bellman makes a deal that saves at least some semblance of his previous life without understanding completely the deal he struck.  I’m still thinking about the story and the way Setterfield winds in short bits about the lives of rooks.

Rules of Civility focuses on New York life in the late 1930s. The Depression is mostly over and World War II has not begun. Young women flock to the city where jobs are available along with eligible men, some of them scions of wealthy families. The story is told through the eyes of Katey Kontent, an independent woman who finds herself thrown into the midst of this world, hovering on the edge of the glamorous lives of the rich and famous even as she follows her own dreams. Towles uses the slang and soundtrack of the day as he follows Katey through 1938. I found myself queuing up Autumn in New York as I read the final chapters.

And, for the record, here is the list of books read so far in 2017. I am shooting, as always, for 75 books but if I can really move along this summer, 100 is not out of the realm of the possible:

January: 9
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
We Never Asked for Wings
March, Book One
March, Book Two
March, Book Three
Persepolis
Essays After Eighty
The Care and Management of Lies
Inequality in the Promised Land

February: 6
The Underground Railroad
Hidden Figures Review
Dark Corners
Escape on the Pearl
Bud, Not Buddy
The Good Lord Bird

March 6
The Mighty Miss Malone
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Four Queens
Queen Dolley
Small Great Things
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

April 6
Wonder Boys
The Flame Bearer
Spell or High Water
The Lost Book of the Grail
The Buried Giant
The Earth is Weeping

May 6
The Lost Order
The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent (Audio)
Coraline
A Company of Liars
Beyond the Hundredth Meridian
Buried In a Bog (Text & Audio)

June 10
Scandal in Skibbereen
Notwithstanding
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend
Ballad
People
13, Rue Therese
Grand Canyon
Thursdays in the Park
Death on Demand
The Hog’s Back Mystery

July
Nora Webster
Bellman & Black
Killers of the Flower Moon
Rules of Civility
An Unwelcome Quest

Correcting The Flight Path: Review of We Never Asked for Wings

We Never Asked for Wings is a compelling story of a mother and son who were willing to break the rules to make life better for someone else. Letty Esposito was just 16 when her son Alex was born; Wes, the father, was already gone away to school, and Letty never told him. Instead, she turned over much of the responsibility for Alex and his younger sister over to her mother as Letty tried to eek out a living at service jobs. She is currently a bartender at an airport bar near her definitely wrong side of the tracks home. When her parents return to Mexico, Letty finds herself struggling to take care of her children even as Alex seems to be moving away from her into his teenage love and life. She must also navigate her own emotional landscape as she connects with a new and old friend.

We experience the novel mostly through Letty and Alex: their paths have strong parallels as they act out of love, impulsive, without fully considering the consequences of their actions. They are fighting for justice so it seems as though their mantra is by any means necessary. Their “crimes” seem minor as they are committed to break down barriers keeping them from realizing their potential.

One powerful lesson in the importance of your address. In this story, as in real life, it determines your access to not just a good education but also a safe one. The students in those challenging schools did nothing except be born in a certain zip code and, unless their parents are able to better their lot, they are trapped. Their poverty exacerbates the isolation as transportation is often an issue. Cars are expensive to maintain and public transportation enforces limits of time and space. As Wes drives Alex to Stanford, Alex muses on the fact that he had never been on the campus that was not far from his home in East Palo Alto.

Birds, feathers and wings were a recurring theme in the book. Alex’s grandfather created feather art, a Mexican tradition, and gifts Alex with his lifetime collections. Alex loves birds himself and often names them when he is nervous. But it is this one insight into bird migration that speaks to the human beings in the book who seem to be heading in the wrong direction. They are discovering ways to adjust these seemingly unwavering paths:

Migrating birds reorient themselves at sunset. The exact reason is unknown, but at twilight,
just when the sun drops beyond the horizon line, birds flying in the wrong direction
correct their flight paths all at once.

I enjoyed the book and can recommend for its story and its concern for justice. There were times when it felt like a young adult novel. I don’t think it’s considered as such but Alex’s voice was so strong and it was as much his story as his mother’s.

Stuff I Made

My analog hobby is crocheting. My grandmother taught me when I was in middle school. I have dabbled in other fiber arts and always come back to crocheting. In fact, one of the projects picture below arose out of an aborted attempt to quilt. After ruining one quilting kit and hiring someone to do the next one, I decided to see if I could do something similar with thread crochet. I gave it to my mother. Other items were also gifts except for the gray scarf. It is soft and lovely muted colors so I claimed it for my own and made a pair of fingerless gloves to go along with it.

Crochet Projects

Making a Place for Poetry in My Life

In his essay “A Yeti In the District”, poet Donald Hall describes a life time of trips to Washington, DC. The last one, in 2011, was made so he could receive the National Medal of Arts. He describes the event and the joy it brought him in some detail.

But, as Hall comments at the end of his essay, there was anticlimax. The photo taken of him–an aged wizardly looking man with a big grin on his face–was used by Alexandra Petri, a Washington Post columnist, for a “caption contest” where readers were encouraged to describe the photo. The entries were for the most part rude and derogatory of a man who once served as Poet Laureate and was being recognized for a lifetime of work. Petri was criticized by many for her loutish column but rather than apologizing, she chose to attack Sarah Palin, one of her critics. I know we live in a time when it seems as though everyone is easily offended, but Petri’s treatment of Hall is, in my humble opinion, beyond the pale, one I hope she remembers when her own youthful good looks have fled.

In a sort of ongoing battle with poets and poetry, Petri continued her attack in an article in 2013 about the potential death of poetry after Richard Blanco’s 2013 inaugural poem was widely criticized.

I am determined now, more than ever, to make a place for poetry in my life. It speak to emotions and experiences we cannot otherwise touch.

In a sad note, Hall is no longer able to write poetry, just one of the many diminishments he describes is his Essays After Eighty in which “A Yeti In the District” appears.

My Reading Plan for 2017

My book shelves are overflowing. I indulged my book buying habit freely in 2017, both locally and nationally, with a particularly interesting haul from the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, Colorado.

Now, it’s time to read. I am not making any promises about not buying any more but at least for now, my reading plans revolve around books already on the shelves. In addition, I want to explore some of the diverse genres that I’ve collected including graphic novels, poetry and essays. Poetry and essays especially seem to demand a different kind of reading: more slowly, over time. Time is needed to explore and savor before moving onto the next piece. While some of this reading will come from my library, others will come from other places. I have an oft-neglected subscription to The New Yorker and have committed to at least an hour or so a week attending to it.

For January, I’ve pulled a few volumes off the shelf:

Kramerbooks

The Donald Hall books came from my buying spree at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle, Washington, DC.

I am going to join the book group at my local library. The book for January is We Never Asked for Wings. I have a copy on my Kindle and suspect I will dive in this weekend.

I’ve begun pulling books together for the rest of 2017 but that’s for another blog post…