Category Archives: books

Good News

My favorite book on Christian hospitality is Andi Ashworth’s Real Love for Real Life. I reviewed it back in 2006. In early 2008, Andi Ashworth lead our church women’s retreat, teaching from this material. Both reading it and hearing it were good for the soul.

Unfortunately, the book has been out of print for a while. But good news for those who need encouragement in caregiving: Rabbit Room Press is releasing a second edition. Order today, it ships next week.

I need to re-read it myself and I’d love to read along with friends and discuss it. I always enjoy a good read, but books are better when they are shared, discussed over a beverage (I’m not too picky) and referenced for years to come as part of a common experience.

May Books

Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl: Short, with very short chapters, so easy to read aloud. It’s the third or fourth Roald Dahl book I’ve read the girls, but it should have been the first. Good introduction to his style and great fun. (9.5/10)

Most Talkative: Stories from the Front Lines of Pop Culture by Andy Cohen: I’m a sucker for memoirs, but this one was a little flat. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you love Cohen or the Real Housewives franchise. (6/10)

The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller is my new favorite book on marriage. Highly recommended for all adults, from single to newly married to not so newly married. (9.5/10)

Rabbit, Run by John Updike is well-written and interesting, with flawed and human characters I came to care about. It deserves its status in the cannon of American literature, and I’m glad I read it, though I doubt I will revisit it. (8.5/10)

Chris Cleave had a lot to live up to after Little Bee. Gold was good, with just enough drama to stay interesting. The writing isn’t “literary” per se, but it has moments of real beauty. (7/10)

April Books

The Starboard Sea is a very solid debut by Amber Dermont. Highly recommended if you like boarding school novels and like the idea of a main character that seems to have everything but is completely lost. (8.5/10)

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire & Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins: I finally read these. I was initially impressed, but eventually couldn’t help thinking there is a great deal of wasted potential in this series. Still, they are fun, thought provoking and I’d recommend reading them if you interact with teenagers at all just for the conversation fodder. (7/10)

I have no idea why I’ve avoided The Seven Laws of Teaching by John Milton Gregory for so long. Yes, a lot of it is self-evident, but it’s still a good read for teachers. (8.75/10)

Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh is funny in a biting, satirical way (this is not Jeeves) but with surprising empathy and sinister twists, in turn. A truly enjoyable classic. (9/10)

Breath by Tim Winton is very moving, a serious and beautiful coming of age story set in rural Australia. I liked his writing voice but found the structure really distracting — there are no quotation marks and quite a bit of dialogue. (8/10)

I read The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak again this month and gave copies away. It’s beautiful and unique and you should read it. (9.5/10)

Leaving Egypt by Chuck DeGroat

One of the most disorienting things in life is suffering. Even when we know all the right things about how the world is fallen and broken in every way, pain jars us, and makes us question who God is and our relationship to him, in part because “we are not often told that once we’ve been delivered into freedom, the hardest times may still be ahead” (pg 75.) As we journey through life and its inevitable suffering, we need to be reminded of the truth, and Leaving Egypt is an able and welcome guide.

By using the Exodus narrative as a structure, author Chuck DeGroat guides us through four parts of the Christian life. (1) Egypt: Facing Our Fear, (2) Sinai: Receiving Our New Identity, (3) Wilderness: Entering the Furnace of Transformation and (4) Home: Experiencing New Identity and Mission. Though each part is essential, well-written and helpful, I felt most drawn to the third section. As the subtitle declares, we often find God in wilderness places, and it is good to be reminded of how God is at work in the midst of suffering and how he uses our suffering teach us.

Though DeGroat shows the hopefulness and promise in suffering, he is also very honest about its difficulty. There are no formulas for quick fixes, but a deep and real acknowledgement of the pain and darkness we all grapple with and a helpful framework for lament.

Though theological and thoughtful, this is a very practical and applicable read. DeGroat draws from many years of experience as a counselor, pastor and professor to help readers understand how this Exodus narrative intersects with their own lives and struggles. There are also questions at the end of each chapter for personal reflection or group discussion.

The Exodus story “invites us to look back at where we’ve been and remember God’s relentless love for us despite our many failures” (pg 154.) Even though we may feel like we prefer the safety and familiarity of our own Egypts and enslavement, God longs for us to move forward. As we journey through our own difficulties and pain, Leaving Egypt reminds us of the truth of who we are, as believers united to Christ. I know I will read it again (a rarity among Christian books for me) and appreciate its simple, clear wisdom. I have already recommended it several times, and would commend it to anyone in the church. (9.5/10)

I received a free copy of this book for review purposes. The opinion expressed is my own.

March Books

Wonder by R. J. Palacio was fantastic. Read a full review here. (10/10)

Looking for Alaska by John Green was a spring break re-read. I liked it better this time around, it’s very thought provoking and a solid debut for Green, one of my favorite authors for young adults. (8.5/10)

Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser is a must read for people who love cities or want to understand why cities are and will continue to be so important. Triumph takes interdisciplinary look towards the future of urban centers and shows why some cities thrive and others falter. (8.5/10)

The Circle of Seasons by Kimberlee Ireton, like the name implies, examines the church year and how it contributes to a life of faith. It’s a a good introduction I’d recommend to someone starting to observe the church calendar. (8/10)

Leaving Egypt by Chuck DeGroat was fantastic, full review next week. (9.5/10)

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

“I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an XBox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds… I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”

From the first page of R.J. Palacio’s debut novel, Wonder, readers are rooting for Auggie Pullman, who due to the 27 surgeries needed to help correct his craniofacial abnormalities, has been homeschooled all his life. But now, he’ll enter the middle school at Beecher Prep, like a lamb headed for slaughter.

Auggie is keenly aware of how people react to his face, from averting their eyes to staring to talking behind their hands about him. Auggie, his parents and his sister had created some level of comfort on their block and in their normal routine, and even through things like a toy astronaut’s helmet he wore everywhere when he was a few years younger. But now it is time to face the world, and readers come along for the journey.

Although Auggie is a character that induces a great deal of sympathy, there is a depth and realness to his character. He loves Star Wars, he tells good jokes, and he loves his dog, not unlike most of the young boys I know. Because he is more than his exterior, this book is able to transcend the “after school special” land that a book about a child with a birth defect often remains in.

Palacio’s choice to tell the story through sections with different narrators is what propels it into award-winning territory. Hearing from Auggie’s point of view is very important, but hearing from his sister Via, and some of the children at school adds another dimension to Wonder that works to its advantage. And it’s rare that so many points of view are given and done well in a book for young readers.

One line that is repeated by the teenager characters in the book is “the universe was not kind to Auggie Pullman.” And though this is true, and painfully real to readers, Wonder is not bogged down in Auggie’s suffering. It’s a book with a great deal of heart and joy, and a message that will resonate with both children and adults without seeming forced or contrived. The universe may not always be kind, but we are all able to be. I am thankful for the reminder. (10/10)

I received a free copy of this book for review purposes. The opinion expressed is my own.

February Books

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is a novel that explores Hemingway’s first wife and their experiences in Jazz Age Paris. If you liked Midnight in Paris, I’d recommend it. (7.5)

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr was fantastic. It’s a YA novel told in two voices, each relatable to high schoolers. I was absorbed in the story of the adoption, and of Jill’s grieving process. (9)

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes was a sweet read aloud. The chapters were long and a little verbose, but the girls liked the story. We probably should have read it over the summer when we had more time in each reading session. (7)

Jesus + Nothing = Everything by Tullian Tchividjian was reviewed in full here. (8.5)

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson was a fascinating look at the beginning of Hitler’s regime through the experiences of the American Ambassador and his family. (8)

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle is celebrating its 50th year of publication in 2012. It holds up remarkably well and I can’t wait to share it with Kate and Lexi. (10)

Jesus + Nothing = Everything

Tullian Tchividjian’s Jesus + Nothing = Everything examines the fundamental truth of the gospel and how to embrace Christ’s finished work for believers. I would not describe it as an exposition of Colossians, but Colossians features prominently. I would not describe it as a spiritual memoir or a particularly personal work, but occasional details of Tchividjian’s difficult year transitioning through a church merger and feelings of inadequacy provide a thread for readers.

Readers can think of Tchividjian’s Jesus + Nothing = Everything as a way to recalibrate and assess our functional beliefs and ask ourselves if we are adding anything to the gospel. There are many good books in this stream right now, and I find that a good thing. Like this book asserts, the gospel is not the first step of the Christian life, it’s the hub. We must constantly remind ourselves of the fundamental truths, we never grow out of them. And so reading this book and others like it (Steve Brown’s Scandalous Freedom comes to mind) from time to time is a good exercise for all of us, because we are prone to “think of the gospel as God’s program to make bad people good, not dead people alive” (pg 116.)

Though Jesus + Nothing = Everything is focused on fundamentals, there is a great deal of meaty content to ponder. For example: “Our performancism leads to pride when we succeed and to despair when we fail. But ultimately it leads to slavey either way because it becomes all about us and what we must do to establish our own identity instead of resting in Jesus and what he accomplished to establish it for us” (pg 46). “The gospel alone empowers and emboldens us to press on and strain forward with no anxiety over gaining other people’s sanction or good opinion–even God’s! All the care and love and value we crave–full and final approval–we already have in Jesus” (pg 92.)

The book moves backwards from Everything to Nothing to Jesus, and then forward again. The structure is not bad in itself, but Tchividjian is fairly repetitive. This is a good trick for preaching, to repeat sentences that summarize your point well, but in writing it can feel poorly edited, (e.g. he said that exact same thing three pages ago.) It wasn’t a huge distraction, and it did help me not to miss any critical points, but it was quite noticeable.

Overall, Jesus + Nothing = Everything is a helpful read for any Christian. I’d particularly recommend it for those coming out of more legalistic traditions and trying to overcome those tendencies. As we walk in faith, it is easy to stray into moralism. This book is a reminder of the simplicity of the gospel – that Jesus himself, his life and his work, are worth everything. Nothing in our hands we bring, simply to the cross we cling. May we not forget. (8.5/10)

I received a free copy of this book for review purposes. The opinion expressed is my own.

January Books

I have attempted this several times but never made it through a year. Let’s see if 2012 can be the year I write at least a sentence about every book I read!

Creation Regained by Al Wolters is a book I’ve been meaning to read for about 10 years. Geared towards students, it’s a good look at the implications of the gospel through all creation. (8.5)

Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas is a well written look at a fascinating figure worth reading about. But somehow, I felt like this biography was a little too close to hagiography, and also projected quite a bit of 21st century evangelicalism onto the subject. Still, it’s a good read. (6.5)

The Fault in our Stars by John Green made me laugh and cry and think. Word to the wise: there is a lot of good work written in the Young Adult genre that you might enjoy, that is neither dystopian nor vampiric. TFioS is my favorite of Green’s novels so far, but I probably need to re-read Looking for Alaska now that I know his writing better. (9.5)

I re-read Compassion, Justice & the Christian Life by Robert Lupton with some friends this month. If you are interested in practical wisdom about loving the poor, I recommend this simple book. (9)

Hippie Boy by Ingrid Ricks was an unfortunate Kindle Lending Library choice fueled by my interest in all things LDS. It is a decent, but unremarkable memoir, and not as much about Mormonism as the blurb suggests. (4)

I really wanted to like The Shaping of a Life by Phyllis Tickle. And there were moments I really enjoyed. But I did not love it, nor did I find it as engaging as many other spiritual memoirs. (6.5)

The Underdog was Markus Zusak’s debut novel. It’s quirky and fun, but read The Book Thief, that is Zusak’s masterpiece. (6)

I wrote a full review of Give Them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick here. (6)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is thought-provoking and like The Fault in our Stars, made me feel a wide range of emotions. It read well and didn’t feel like a translation. I think this is a book people either really like or really don’t, and I’d recommend it more cautiously, even though I enjoyed it. (8)

Give Them Grace

Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of JesusGive Them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Give Them Grace asks readers a very important question: how does believing the gospel change the way that you parent? Fitzpatrick asserts that if the way that we parent is the same as a devout Muslim or Jew, there must be something wrong. I think this is a paradigm shift that is very important for Christian parents, and one that I have been excited to see more and more of in books written in the last five to ten years.

The overall message of the book will be a balm to many readers. Resting in grace, parenting with humility, dependence on God, these are all messages that parents need to be reminded of. There are no guarantees and no quick fixes. Parenting is hard. I think many parents will find this an encouragement on many levels.

Because I have seen her books recommended in presbyterian circles so often, I was genuinely surprised by how un-covenantal this book was. (Fitzpatrick has a Sovereign Grace / Reformed Baptist background.) In the first several chapters alone, it talks many times about not presuming your children are regenerate, that they might pray a prayer just to please you and if they aren’t saved, they don’t have the Holy Spirit and therefore can’t obey God’s law from the heart. In examples of how to speak to a child, parents say things like “someday you’ll know how wonderful God is and how much he loves you.” Worse yet, speaking to an older child, “Because you don’t believe in Jesus’s love for you, your whole life will be spent trying to win and never being satisfied. And then you’ll have to stand before God, and all you’ll have is your record of failure. Striking out isn’t the worst thing that will ever happen to you. Living your life to win something other than Jesus is.” In example “scripts” there are different things to say to unbelieving versus believing children.

This is hard for me to read, even though I know that my children might turn away from God and need to be spoken to as an unbeliever, I think that it can be very confusing to children to speak to them as if they do not have faith. Let’s not encourage doubt or for them to question whether they “really” believe, let’s teach them to rest in God, as he is the author of their faith, anyway.

Though Fitzpatrick explains a fully orbed portrait of discipline that looks like discipleship, she uses the word “discipline” as a synonym for “spanking” which irks me. Parents say “I must discipline you” which is true generally, but what they mean is “I am choosing to spank you for this infraction.” It’s a pet peeve. Reading her model for talking to a child who defied his parent by not stopping playing when told it was time for dinner, shocked me. “If you believe that he has loved you and received punishment for you, then this kind of punishment will help remind you to live wisely, and the pain of it will soon be gone. But if you don’t believe in his great goodness, then the punishment you receive today will be just the beginning of a lifetime of pain. Today, you can ask for forgiveness, and I will forgive you, and if you ask him, so will the Lord. But if you wait, if you harden your heart and refuse to change, then a day will come when it will be too late to ask for forgiveness.” This sort of talk feels manipulative to me.

However, I appreciate the stand the authors have taken against forcing children to show repentance after being spanked. Many evangelical authors espouse this idea, and I know many adults who remember faking repentance and lying to avoid further punishment.

Many readers will appreciate the attempt at coupling of theology and a philosophy of parenting with more practical advice. I feel like I talk to my kids fairly theologically but the models were a stretch, and I couldn’t imagine talking to my children like that. However, it did incite me to think about how I would phrase a similar discussion, and that sort of premeditation is always helpful in parenting.

This is a good addition to the already crowded Christian Parenting shelves at bookstores, but I am still waiting for a book that I feel more comfortable recommending.

Books I Read in 2011

I didn’t read as much as in 2010, but it was still a pretty good year of reading. Here’s my list, categorized to highlight those I would most strongly commend to other readers.

I Liked These Enough to Re-Read Them in 2011
To Hate Like This is to Be Happy Forever | Blythe
An Abundance of Katherines | Green
My Name is Asher Lev | Potok
The Gift of Asher Lev | Potok
the Harry Potter books | Rowling

Ten I Highly Recommend
Fidelity | Berry
Life Together | Bonhoeffer
Nurture Shock | Bronson + Merryman
O Pioneers! | Cather
Peace Like a River | Enger
Black Like Me | Griffin
My Life with the Saints | Martin
The Return of the Prodigal Son | Nouwen
Winter Light | Smith
The Inimitable Jeeves | Wodehouse

Very Good Reads
Matilda | Dahl
Almost Christian | Dean
The Hundred Dresses | Estes
Bossypants | Fey
Everything is Illuminated | Foer
Will Grayson, Will Grayson | Green + Levithan
The American | James
Everything Happened But Not Like This | Jurkis
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? | Kaling
On Writing | King
Eating the Dinosaur | Klosterman
The Friendship Doll | Larson
A Severed Wasp | L’Engle
The Small Rain | L’Engle
The Group | McCarthy
Emily of New Moon | Montgomery
Lancelot | Percy
Engaging God’s World | Plantinga
The Whole-Brain Child | Siegel + Bryson
Mere Churchianity | Spencer
Gulliver’s Travels | Swift
Sacred Marriage | Thomas
Kicking at the Darkness | Walsh
Still | Winner

These Were Good, Too
Practical Theology for Women | Alsup
Jesus, My Father, The CIA & Me | Crom
The American Plague | Crosby
Falling Together | De Los Santos
Generation Ex-Christian | Dyck
A Visit from the Goon Squad | Egan
Juliet, Naked | Hornby
Half the Church | James
The Key to the Golden Firebird | Johnson
Parenting Beyond Your Capacity | Joiner + Nieuwhof
Gooney Bird on the Map | Lowry
The Next Christians | Lyons
Start Something That Matters | Mycoskie
The Grace of Silence | Norris
The Tiger’s Wife | Obreht
Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest | Oz
Anna & the French Kiss | Perkins
I Am Scout | Shields
Vietnamerica | Tran
Look Homeward, Angel | Wolfe

Might Be Your Cup of Tea (But Wasn’t Really Mine.)
You Know Who You Are | Dolnick
The Apostles Creed for Today | Gonzalez
Treasuring God in Our Traditions | Piper
Scammed by Society | Stygles
Young Fredle | Voigt
The Attenbury Emeralds | Walsh

Still & My Life with the Saints

StillStill by Lauren F. Winner

Still by Lauren Winner is aptly subtitled “Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.” It is a collection of reflections from the middle, from a place of messiness, doubt and despair. That terrain is familiar to many and the ability to feel less alone in those moments by reading this book makes it worthwhile.

Winner directly informs readers that this is not a memoir. If you are looking for juicy details about her marriage falling apart, you won’t find them here. In the moments the book got the most personal and vulnerable, it connected most deeply with me as a reader. But I understand why there is a sense of discretion, and at times, detachment, in the writing as well. Winner is very respectful of her ex-husband, placing the blame for their shaky marriage and its dissolution squarely on herself and her issues. If she had delved more deeply into the personal, this respect would have been hard to maintain.

The writing is poetic and beautiful, as readers have come to expect from Winner. “Notes” fits well, as the chapters vary in length from a few sentences to many pages, and include many quotes and ideas from poets, writers, theologians and friends.

Overall, there is a hope in Still. Instead of fleeing when she felt far from God, Winner stayed in her church, stayed in her community, and learned to feel God’s nearness again. Her means of doing so may not work for others in the middle (and this book is very far from setting itself up as a model for others or self-help by any means) but it is a testimony that one can feel engulfed by anxiety, doubt and despair and start to believe more deeply again. And that is a beautiful message to the church. (8/10, expected to release January 31, 2012, I received an advanced copy from the publisher, which in no way affected my review.)

+ + +

MLWTSMy Life with the Saints by James Martin

Winsome and wickedly funny, My Life With the Saints is part history, part theology and part memoir. Sharing about his own life and discovery of a variety of saints in the Catholic Church, James Martin helps readers to see the encouragement we are able to find from other Christians (living and dead) while striving to follow God with our own unique gifts and experiences.

Far from being dry, Martin’s interactions with the saints serve as a model for how others can study the saints for themselves, as companions and friends. He includes men and women, from many different ages of the church. As a Jesuit priest, Martin has a thoroughly Roman Catholic theology of the saints, but I think protestants can also learn a great deal from this book. (9/10, seeing Father Martin on Colbert again reminded me to pick this up off my shelf. Thanks Stephen.)