Category Archives: reviews

Go Set a Watchman Between the World and Me

There are a few spoilers about themes and one scene in GSAW in the text that follows.


Last Tuesday morning I headed to my local bookstore to buy two brand-new books, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. They were both good reads, and interesting to read together as they both directly addressed the subject of race.

The literary world has been abuzz since it was announced that Lee was publishing an unedited manuscript, an early draft of the novel that would be our beloved To Kill a Mockingbird.

Generally, as a novel, I am not sure that Go Set a Watchman works apart from To Kill a Mockingbird. It is so dependent and tied to it that I find it hard to believe the story that it was a first draft. It feels more like a sequel that was too heavy-handed to publish without significant editing to help Lee do more showing and less telling. To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book; Go Set a Watchman is an interesting read.

Early readers of Go Set a Watchman were aghast at the fall of Atticus, a hero to so many. But it is obvious that Atticus did not fall, as much as Scout discovered that her father had feet of clay. It is one of the universal experiences of growing up, to discover that a hero is not the person you thought him to be, but a flawed and complicated individual.

The racism that Atticus demonstrates is very representative of his day and class, with a paternalism that many saw—and continue to see—as good. Their racism becomes whitewashed by their intentions and is then easily explained away. As Coates says, “There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally.”

What Scout discovers is that race is a much bigger deal in Maycomb than she innocently believed. The turning point is when she visits Calpurnia, the black household maid and cook who raised her. As Scout experiences the coldness and distance between them, she is shaken to the core, thinking, “She loved us, I swear she loved us. She sat there in front of me and she didn’t see me, she saw white folks. She raised me, and she doesn’t care.”

When whites have all the power in a relationship and in the culture, how does that shape that relationship and that culture? What if that has been the case for generation after generation? These fundamental and core problems make simple things like Scout declaring herself color blind an insufficient response to racism.

This is why America needs the prophetic voice of writers like Ta-Nahisi Coates. His perspective and his worldview are so alien from my own, his words force me to grapple with things previously foreign. In order for things in our country to change, we need Coates to write, and the majority culture needs to listen.

Between the World and Me is a small, slim book. There are so many passive-aggressive missives these days that calling the book an open letter feels wrong, but it is a letter to Coates’ adolescent son about what it means to be a black man in America and an homage to similar letters written in the past.

The letter is often intimate and personal, the stories are intentionally visceral and provocative. There is an urgency to Between the World and Me that could be summarized in part with Coates’ own words. “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made.” This dark reality could be crushing but there is levity and hopefulness in the midst of it, glimmers of joy.

There is a moment in To Kill a Mockingbird where Atticus tells his daughter a truth we’ve all heard. “First of all,” he said, “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Maybe it is better to acknowledge that the best way to do that is to listen, really listen to other perspectives. I will never truly know what it is like to be someone else because I can’t climb into his skin and walk around in it. Instead of trying too hard to work on his behalf paternalistically, I should get out of his way and let him speak for himself.

I Wrote a Book Chapter

During my forced hiatus, a book chapter I wrote about celebrating Pentecost was published. First it came out as a small volume, but now you can get the whole thing. Let Us Keep The Feast: Living the Church Year at Home is an affordable guide to celebrating the church year in meaningful ways.


Obviously, I find comfort and meaning from celebrating the church year at home with my family. I’ve shared over the years through blog posts about some of the ways we’ve observed the seasons. Each year I am encouraged to hear how others are keeping the church year with their own families.

Let Us Keep the Feast provides an introduction and explanation of each season of the church year with ideas of how to celebrate and relevant recipes, readings, hymns and prayers. It is perfect for someone who is newer to celebrating the church year or looking for ideas of how to bring the church year into family life.

A few people over the years have mentioned turning my blog posts into a book, and honestly this is exactly what I had in mind. I am thankful that Ed Eubanks at Doulos Resources connected me to this project after it was already underway.

The book is only $3.99 on the kindle or in PDF / epub. The publisher offers free digital copies for those who buy a print edition, if you are the sort who likes your books in multiple formats.

As we wind down the last few days of Christmas, I am already thinking about how we will celebrate Epiphany; it was a treat to see what Anna had written about in her chapter as I started to plan. Of course, I will keep all my old resources up if you’d like the quick blog version. Either way, I’d love to hear how your family keeps the feast.

Books I Read in 2014

My annual round-up of finished books. The covers pictured are the ones I most highly recommend.

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel by Maria Semple
Roomies by Sara Zarr & Tara Altebrando
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith
This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

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Insurgent by Veronica Roth
Allegiant by Veronica Roth
An Anthropologist On Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales by Oliver Sacks
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
People of the Book: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks
How People Change by Timothy Lane and Paul David Tripp
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B. J. Novak

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Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos
David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell
How Children Succeed by Paul Tough
Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent by N. D. Wilson
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink
Boys and Girls Learn Differently! by Michael Gurian
Wonder by R. J. Palacio
Our Town: A Play in Three Acts by Thornton Wilder
Monster by Walter Dean Myers

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The End of Molasses Classes by Ron Clark
Your Ten- to Fourteen-Year-Old by Louise Ames and Frances Ilg
No Talking by Andrew Clements
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
The Myth of the Perfect Girl by Ana Homayoun
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers by Randall Munroe
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
11/22/63: A Novel by Stephen King

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Smile by Raina Telgemeier
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown
The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story by R. J. Palacio
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Lila: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Books I Read in 2013

Annual round-up, first the list (in reverse-chronological order), then some analysis.

Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes | Niequist
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking | Cain
The Book of Jonah | Feldman
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever | Robinson
The Great Brain | Fitzgerald
Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. | Delaney
Jeeves & the Tie that Binds | Wodehouse
Mississippi in Africa | Huffman
The Fault in Our Stars | Green
The Good Luck of Right Now | Quick
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage | Patchett
Crazy Rich Asians | Kwan
Seize the Day | Bellow
Once Was Lost | Zarr
Lying Awake | Salzman
Someday, Someday, Maybe | Graham
Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist | Cohn & Levithan
Nine Stories | Salinger
Parenting With Love & Logic | Cline & Fay
Liar & Spy | Stead
Love is an Orientation | Marin
She’s Come Undone | Lamb
Camilla | L’Engle
Romeo & Juliet | Shakespeare
The Burgess Boys | Strout
Dear Girls Above Me | McDowell
The Art of Family | Bria
Insurgent | Roth
Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing | Lloyd-Jones
Divergent | Roth
Death of a Salesman | Miller
My Name is Asher Lev | Potok
The Complete Stories | O’Connor
More Than Dates & Dead People | Mansfield
I Loved a Girl | Trobisch
Death Comes to Pemberley | James
Go Down, Moses | Faulkner
Telegraph Avenue | Chabon
The Silver Linings Playbook | Quick
Unorthodox | Feldman
The Last Segregated Hour | Haynes
Sticks and Stones | Bazelon
The Giver | Lowry
Pride and Prejudice | Austen
Gilead | Robinson
The Great Gatsby | Fitzgerald

Top 5 New-to-Me Fiction
The Giver | Lowry
Lying Awake
 | Salzman
Nine Stories | Salinger
She’s Come Undone | Lamb
The Silver Linings Playbook | Quick

Top 5 New-to-Me Non-Fiction
The Art of Family | Bria
Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes | Niequist
The Last Segregated Hour | Haynes
Parenting With Love & Logic | Cline & Fay
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking | Cain

Top 5 Re-Reads
The Complete Stories | O’Connor
Gilead | Robinson
The Great Gatsby | Fitzgerald
My Name is Asher Lev | Potok
Pride and Prejudice | Austen

This was not a particularly good year of reading. It was a chaotic year in general, and my reading rhythms were disrupted. This annual review is a good opportunity to recalibrate and contemplate what I’d like to read in the new year.

The Exact Place by Margie Haack

A good memoir allows readers a glimpse into another person’s experience and leaves them better for it. The Exact Place recalls Margie Haack’s childhood in the harsh and wild landscape of rural Northern Minnesota. Margie and her husband Denis have a fantastic ministry called Ransom Fellowship. Michael and I have enjoyed their writing on faith and culture for many years, so I had no doubt that I’d enjoy this book, just as I’ve enjoyed Margie’s writing over the years on her blog and in Notes from Toad Hall.

Oftentimes, books set it rural places are idyllically pastoral, a glorification of country life. Though Haack’s childhood had some rural pleasures anyone can admire, she did not shy away from recalling the difficulties of rural poverty. These details made it feel honest and real, but so did the recipes and the happy memories as well.

One of the recurring themes of the book is Margie’s relationship with her stepfather, and her longing to know her biological father, who died before she was born. The tension as she tries to earn his love is palpable and at times, heartbreaking, but it wasn’t so overwhelming that it weighed down the book. It is a part of Haack’s story, but it is not the whole story, and there is certainly redemption to be found when we explore and acknowledge the brokenness in our lives.

The Exact Place is the second book published by Kalos Press, and I am so excited by their work so far. If you buy the print copy, they will give you the ebook for free, fantastic for people like me who appreciate both print and digital mediums for reading. Also, you can lend out your copy of the physical book while retaining your digital copy, just in case you need it.

As childhood memoirs go, this is a lovely and moving work. Though it is spiritual, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and has moments of levity and joy as well as pain and yearning. It’s real and it’s good, just like I expected from Margie Haack. If you like memoirs or are familiar with the Haacks, I highly recommend it to you.  (8.5/10)

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

September Books

Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber was one of the most buzzed about books in my circles in 2012. I enjoyed it, but not quite as much as I thought it would. It would have benefited from more editing, which surprised me as the author is an English professor, but the setting could not be beat. (8/10.)

Every Day by David Levithan is a Young Adult book that just came out. The premise was interesting to me, but the execution wasn’t as good as I had hoped (6.5/10.)

Every year, I read a little Wodehouse. It’s good for the soul. Mike and Psmith did not disappoint, it was my first Psmith novel and it will not be my last. A lot of cricket was described, which I thought would be dull, but it really wasn’t (8.5/10.)

How to Talk to Your Child About Sex by Richard and Linda Eyre is a straightforward book about the subject. Though the authors do not mention it, they are Latter-day Saints, so their suggestions skew conservative though they try to be general and made it easy to customize for various families. Some of the scripts were really unlikely, but still thought provoking (6/10.)

The Exact Place by Margie Haack is a lovely memoir I will review in full soon (8.5/10.)

Love Does by Bob Goff

Love Does is a memoir of sorts, stories and vignettes from the life of author Bob Goff. Goff is an extraordinary man, full of whimsy and heart. Some of the stories made me laugh out loud, others made me tear up. The premise of the book is that love does, love is about action. And I believe that to be true and an encouraging message.

What is a little troubling about the book is that doing for Goff often costs more than time and energy. It costs money, and lots of it. I really struggled with the lack of acknowledging that 99.9% of Christians worldwide could not live as Bob does because they could never spend as Bob does. I have noticed that evangelicalism lately is all about living lives of service and doing amazing things, and I worry that might marginalize those for whom taking a year off to “minister” just isn’t financially possible. If you struggle with contentment, this book might not be for you.

Another concern was the lack of connection to a local church and the skepticism towards typical Christianity. A lot of this is a good thing — I love the idea of a “Bible Doing” group rather than a Bible Study — but the sum of it felt like a lone ranger, individualistic faith rather than the true and deep community of faith that I believe to be the most biblical model.

I enjoyed this book, but it made me want wads of cash so I could do the sorts of things Bob does. And that’s not really the point. I’d love to see someone live an extraordinary, whimsical life of sacrificial love on a budget of $50,000 a year or less. I’d read that book in a heartbeat. Goff’s stories are really interesting and the profits are going to Restore International, so if you are intrigued, I’d say go ahead and read it. (6.5/10)

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

August Books

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is a moving young adult novel with graphic, difficult content. (7/10)

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction is a novel in two parts (or two closely-related novellas) written by J.D. Salinger. It’s been a while since I’ve read Salinger, and I enjoyed it, though not as much as Franny and Zooey. (8.5/10)

Hanna Pylväinen’s We Sinners is a solid debut novel I’d recommend (despite some unevenness) to those interested in children coming of age in severe faiths. (7/10)

The End of the Affair was not my favorite Graham Greene, but the writing made it worthwhile to read anyway. (8/10)

I will write a longer review of Love Does in the next week or so, but I had mixed feelings. (6.5/10)

When I started C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, I realized I’d read it in college, but it was worthy of reading again. (8.5/10)

July Books

How Children Raise Parents by Dan Allender is a great framework for thinking about parenting, but could be slightly more practical. I recommend it highly for parents of children in any age or stage. (9/10)

A Curtain of Green & Other Stories was the first short story collection published by Eudora Welty and it was a great read. Some stories are better than others, “The Key” and “A Worn Path” were my favorites. (8.5/10)

Subtitled “Adventures in Loving Your Neighbors,” Margot Starbuck’s Small Thing with Great Love is a choose-your-own-adventure style book about being compassionate where you are. Great ideas but not overwhelming. (8/10)

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde is a fun little play that everyone should read once. (9.5/10)

June Books

Stuart Little by E. B. White was a fun read aloud with the girls. I’ve always been fond of Stuart’s adventures in the city, especially. (9/10)

Like all the Willa Cather I’ve encountered, The Song of the Lark was delightful to read. Her writing is strikingly beautiful, and the story will resonate with artistic people in particular. (8.5/10)

Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr is the sort of YA fiction I want Kate and Lexi to read when they are in high school. It’s a story of struggle and redemption and a solid debut novel, though I’d probably start with How to Save a Life if you are interested in reading her work. (8/10)

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is a helpful and encouraging read for any writer. (8.5/10)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s was an enjoyable read, especially as I began to see Holly as a manic pixie dream girl. Capote was an able writer and certainly knew it. (8/10)

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward is a brutal story written in beautiful, poetic prose. It deserves the accolades it’s received and I look forward to reading more from Ward in the future. (8.5/10)

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)