Enough Already

I review hundreds of Christian books a year—skimming and scanning them to see what’s trending and what might be beneficial to share with our readers. These come from every publisher imaginable, and many of the works that cross my desk are solid. Writers are pushing into new territory, making biblically-sound arguments, and faithfully teaching the Word of God. The hot topic du jour changes, of course. One year, brokenness was on everyone’s mind. Being “messy” and “real” had a heyday too. The Enneagram is still going strong. Perennial topics like grace, peace, and love are never in short supply. And the leadership books…oh, the leadership books. Have mercy.

However, since I began this work seven or eight years ago, one thing has remained constant: Women’s books are pastel. And I mean that both in terms of visual design and substance.

These are two books I recently received in the mail. What do you notice? What do they have in common? Pleasing robin’s egg blue covers with pink accents. Feminine font. Encouraging titles. And flowers. Always flowers.

I read a few pages of each of these offerings and promptly put them on the giveaway pile at the office. The first reason is because we need books that apply to both genders and a wide variety of ages, and these are specifically aimed a female audience in a certain stage of life. The second is because the message of each is very self-focused, and we need writers who can speak on topics that pertain to the church as whole.

My gripe is not with these two publications in particular, but the overall market for books aimed at Christian women. I did a quick search on Amazon looking for top sellers, and here’s what I came up with.

Each cover (save three) is decorated with flowers, leaves, and vines. And the ones that don’t Make use of other common visuals—a feather and a butterfly (which symbolize freedom or lightness) and a pair of hipster casual tennis shoes (being messy or real). Ladies, I guess we never get tired of taking pictures of our feet, do we?

Perhaps this is my personal preference showing as I’m not a fan of overly-feminine things, but I feel like these covers say a great deal more about the books’ intended audience than they do about what’s inside the works themselves. The message I’m getting isn’t “Drink deeply from Scripture,” “Combat what’s sinful in yourself,” or even “Renew your mind.” It’s “Be soothed,” “Love yourself,” and “Stop trying so hard to be perfect.”

Now, I will say that several of these are Bible studies, which is a far cry better than a first-person book that uses Scripture as a reference. However, to be honest, I’ve picked up many a women’s study over the years hoping to find something challenging and convicting, something that compels me to look at God’s Word (and myself) differently. And so many times, I’ve come away feeling disappointed.

Having never read any of these books, I can’t speak about them in particular. However, most of the Bible studies I’ve tried just aren’t deep enough. They’re too focused on how I feel about a passage from the Bible or how it speaks to my experience. Call me crazy, but if the goal is to die to self, to crucify my flesh with its passions and desires, to decrease so that he might increase, my feelings and experience don’t enter into it at all.

John’s Gospel ends with as clear (and tantalizing) a closing sentence as any in the Bible: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31). Not “that you may feel like God loves you” or “that you may feel he’s your Savior.” It’s that you may believe and, by believing, you may live.

I don’t know if women continue to choose these books because it’s what they truly want (or think they should want) or if they’re afraid of taking on something more substantive. But I am painfully aware of just how many books are being marketed to Christian women and what they contain. We are being well and truly shortchanged.

One of the best-selling new non-fiction books of the decade—Rachel Hollis’ Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be—is the natural and obvious outcome of this trend. 1.6 million copies of her work found their way into women’s hands in 2018. Its message? According to Hollis herself, “You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are. That’s the takeaway.”

“What sets this book apart is — this sounds so lame to say—is my voice,” Hollis told the AP. “I’m not an expert. I’m not a guru. Anything I’ve ever done, the work I’ve done, has always been like your girlfriend telling you what worked for her.” That’s what women are paying to hear, and the thinnest veneer of Jesus imaginable makes them think they’re reading something of eternal value. Both Alisa Childers and Laura Turner have written outstanding reviews pointing out the shortcomings of and the dangers inherent in Girl, Wash Your Face, so I won’t belabor the point by adding my two cents. However, one line from Childers’ review is relevant here.

“I’ll be honest,” she writes. “Reading this book exhausted me. It’s all about what I can be doing better and what I’m not doing good enough. How to be better at work, parenting, and writing. How to be less bad at cardio, sex, and you know, changing the world.”

So many flowery books about peace and balance. So many books about how we are enough and need to stop the crazy-making attempts at human perfection. And yet Hollis’ book—which encourages us to do more and try harder because, dadgummit, we’re the captains of our ships and the mistresses of our own destinies—is flying off the shelves. We’re consuming contrary messages, neither of which will ever soothe. Instead, we’re left anxious and troubled about many things, forgetting we can choose the good portion.

There are topics like cosmology, pneumatology, Christology, soteriology, and eschatology to study, and books about them aren’t in short supply. So why do we consistently settle for anything less? Why are we all so concerned with finding peace here on earth (and in ourselves) when Jesus clearly tells us, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword….And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:34, 38-39)?

I firmly believe that women are capable of serious theological study. We are created in God’s image, gifted with minds to explore everything from hallelujah to the hypostatic union. It’s time to leave our Pinterest-perfect faith quests behind and start demanding more of Christian publishers…and ourselves.

Redeeming Words

I get roughly two hours a day to myself. One hundred and twenty obligation-free minutes that must be spent well. There are times when I do opt to watch a movie or a couple of episodes of a television show, but more often than not, I spend that precious time with a book (usually with a baseball game on in the background).

Everyone knows that reading is certainly better than binge watching or losing endless hours in front of a video game console, but not all reading material is created equal. And, in this day and age, how we read matters just as much as what. I’m not against popular fiction mind you; my bookshelves and my library card will attest to the fact that I’ve consumed my fair share. However, I read it for an altogether different reason than I do a solid piece of non-fiction or a “classic” work.

When I was an English major, I read with an attention to detail that would impress a ship-in-a-bottle enthusiast. Pen, highlighter, and page flags at the ready, I attacked a work of literature or critical theory ruthlessly. I highlighted passages, wrote reference notes in the margins and on the blank pages at the back. Basically, I did what Billy Collins said all students do, I beat it “with a hose / to find out what it really means.”

I have neither the time nor the inclination to read in such a way these days. I want to experience the books I select and enjoy them for what they are, but I also don’t want to lose the ability to read critically and with attention to detail. I want to investigate language and understand how words work together.

Apparently, I’m in the minority.

According to this article by Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA, “skim reading” rather than “deep reading” is the new normal. In her research, she’s discovered that, “Increasing reports from educators and from researchers in psychology and the humanities bear this out. English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson describes how many college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts. We should be less concerned with students’ ‘cognitive impatience,’ however, than by what may underlie it: the potential inability of large numbers of students to read with a level of critical analysis sufficient to comprehend the complexity of thought and argument found in more demanding texts, whether in literature and science in college, or in wills, contracts and the deliberately confusing public referendum questions citizens encounter in the voting booth.”

I’ve noticed this cognitive decay happening with people I love. Those who once read books now spend all their free time staring at and swiping on iPads and phones, and over the years, their ability to concentrate has been whittled away. I don’t know if they’re even aware it’s happening, and, sadder still, I’m not sure they care.

Hundreds of studies have been done about the impact of technology, and most of the research isn’t good. According to doctors and researchers, we’re miserable and lonely. Our kids are pretty much wrecked and suffer from anxiety and depression because they’re always connected. We bemoan the lack of civility in our culture and the fact that thoughtful debate seems to have gone the way of the Dodo, yet we won’t put down the things that make us reactionary rather than thoughtful citizens.

When it comes to books, however, the research is all positive. Reading—especially fiction—allows us to take Atticus Finch’s advice and “climb inside [another person’s] skin and walk around in it.” Through reading, we gain empathy. Immersing ourselves in good books makes us smarter. It keeps our minds sharper and helps us be more relaxed.

For this reason, I read at least fifty books per year (both in hard copy and audiobook form when I’m driving), and ten of them must be classics. In addition to a dozen works of non-fiction, some poetry, and a couple of graphic novels, I’ve read Invisible Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, A Raisin in the Sun, Candide, A Moveable Feast, and, most recently, Crime and Punishment.

I have thoroughly enjoyed each of these books, and I’m looking forward to finishing a few more before year’s end. However, good as Dostoyevsky’s novel was, I could feel my mind wandering in parts of Crime and Punishment. I tuned out during a few long descriptive passages, and my eyes glazed over more than once when the story seemed to rewind and repeat itself. Twenty-five-year-old me wouldn’t have done that. That version of Jamie would have read it with laser precision (though with less joy, I think) and analyzed everything about the diction and syntax. She would have marked any instance of symbolism and every allegorical reference (of which there were many). Don’t take that to mean forty-year-old Jamie is a slouch though. Whenever I caught my eyeballs getting loose, I stopped. I re-read and re-focused. I kept a pen in my hand to underline sentences I enjoyed and make observations and predictions.

All the other moms at taekwondo practice (and their kids) may have spent 45 minutes on electronics, but I spent that time in St. Petersburg, Russia wrestling with some thorny moral questions. I’m not judging, believe me. I’ve spent many an hour scrolling social media, but I’ve made the decision to severely curtail my use of those platforms in order to make room for other things. Better things. More filling and rewarding things.

Reading Crime and Punishment expanded my knowledge of Russian history and geography. I even gained a little linguistical wisdom. Take the protagonist’s name for instance. Rodion comes from Rhodes, a Greek island, and Raskolnikov derives from the Russian raskolnik meaning “schismatic.” He is worthy of such a name, for he spends much of the story isolated and of broken because he is of two minds.

Spending time with characters like Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is well worth the time and effort it takes to read their stories. Being inside his head as he wrestled with an ethical dilemma allowed me to experience it up close and personal too. I had to ask myself some hard questions about the value of human life and where I stand on punishment and redemption. I was forced to re-examine my thoughts on morality and the power of God’s grace.

And beyond that, there are the soaring phrases that I will keep with me always:

  • “Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”
  • “To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.”
  • “The darker the night, the brighter the stars. The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”
  • “We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word has been spoken.”
  • “It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently.”
  • “There is nothing in the world more difficult than candor, and nothing easier than flattery. If there is a hundredth of a fraction of a false note to candor, it immediately produces dissonance, and as a result, exposure. But in flattery, even if everything is false down to the last note, it is still pleasant, and people will listen not without pleasure; with coarse pleasure, perhaps, but pleasure nevertheless.”

Spending an hour on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram seems so paltry, so insufficient when there are words like that out there to feast on. And yet, many of us choose technology instead. We use it to escape reality, to numb our brains to the world around us (especially when it’s unpleasant and we “can’t even”), but what we really need to do is lean in.

In Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, John the Savage (so named because he’s grown up outside of the World State’s influence) says of mosquitos and flies, “You got rid of them. Yes, that’s just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. [You] neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. It’s too easy….What you need…is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.”

Like John, I want to know the world in all its beauty and savagery. I want to pay the cost required to live well, to know true pain as well as joy.

Near the end of her article, Maryanne Wolf states, “The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended ‘collateral damage’ of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.”

The last sentence makes it obvious why deep reading essential (and why our culture is the way it is today). I’ve studied far too many dystopian works to claim ignorance. They’ve shown me what a world without thought looks like, and it is a terrifying prospect. I don’t know if the predictions of Orwell, Huxley, Lewis, Atwood, Dick, Burgess, or Bradley will ever come true. I cannot tell if our world will one day resemble the ones they created as a warning. What I do know is that our minds cannot be spent frivolously. They are precious gifts we must defend at all costs against a world eager to consume them.

 

 

In My End Is My Beginning

Georgia. From the Greek, the feminine form of George, a word meaning “a tiller of soil” or “farmer.” The name fits seeing as how the state is filled from border to shore with farmland. But while some folks settle in and work the earth, more often than not, it’s a place people pass through or end up marooned in by some sad twist of fate. Think about it…

Gladys Knight got here on a midnight train, leaving sunny California to return with her man in his shame and failure (whoo whoo!)

The brokenhearted Marshall Tucker Band arrived on a Southbound, one that took them to the place where “the train runs outta track.”

It’s the place where innocent men are hung because of backwoods Southern lawyers, where good men settle down with their hard lovin’ girls, where it’s easy to think it’s raining all over the world.

Seems like no one who comes here is very happy about it (except Ray Charles who made a fortune singing about moonlight through the pines, but let’s not bring him into it.)

Like many, I’m a sojourner in the thirteenth colony, brought here against my wishes. I’d lived in Georgia once before when I attended Valdosta State University, where I earned two bachelor’s degrees and hooked me a husband. But when I lost my teaching job and scatted on back to sunny Florida, my adopted home state, I was glad to shake the red clay from my feet. Little did I know that less than a decade later, I’d be back and settled in a city much farther north—Atlanta, the pit of the peach state.

This sprawling metroplex, now known as “The Hollywood of the South,” was established in 1837 as the end of the Western & Atlantic railroad line. Unlike other capitals, it’s not on a river or a coast, a locale easily accessed by waterway. It’s tucked firmly, stubbornly some might say, in the right breast pocket of the state. And though six or seven major roads can get you here these days, don’t count on any of them being faster than that original train. Oh, and it’s original given name? Terminus, which means “final point” or “end.” How fitting. (Thanks to The Walking Dead for that little factoid.)

So yes, it’s safe to say I’m not head-over-heels in love with this place. I miss the ocean and fresh seafood, saw palmettos and mangroves, eating oranges straight off the tree and the taste of homemade Key Lime Pie. I miss endless green golf courses and hidden freshwater springs and manatees. I even miss anoles.

It’s not just creature comforts I’m kvetching about either. For the first time in my life, I’m six hours away from my family, which left me feeling adrift and isolated at first. But I’m starting to understand the value of that kind of distance.

Before I left home, there were many things to which the answers seemed sure. Why? Because I lived in an echo chamber, surrounded by people who looked, thought, and acted like I did. Consensus doesn’t call for much in the way of soul searching. Here in Atlanta, however, I’m away from kin and have had to build a larger social circle to compensate. Sharing space and time with a more diverse group of people has proven to be one of the greatest blessings (and causes for growth) I’ve ever experienced.

For the first time in my nearly 40 years on this earth, I listen more than I talk. I have sat wide-eared with people I’ve grown to love and value, and they’ve revealed so much. They told me how they grieve over tributes to the Confederacy in town squares or carved into Stone Mountain. To them, the latter is a blight on an amazing creation of God, and each statue, plaque, or obelisk reminds them that racism’s roots run deep in the state we all call home.

As a lover of all things historical, I once argued that such monuments should be left unmolested in order to preserve history (and avoid repeating it). However, knowing that these objects cause others pain, seeing it writ large on the faces of fellow image bearers of God, compelled me to revise my opinion.

That unsettling revelation led me on a paper pilgrimage, and I read books like Blood At the Root: A Racial Cleansing In America by Patrick Phillips, White Awake by Daniel Hill, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege by Ken Wytsma, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, March by John Lewis, and Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson. With each volume, I’ve been challenged, forced either to defend or amend things I once thought settled, and while it can be challenging, it’s been well worth it. The work has reframed my understanding of the legal system in America, helped me see the ways we confuse patriotism and nationalism, and broadened my view on immigration and belonging.

The distance has also required me to look at my faith with fresh eyes. For too long, I went along with what I’d been taught, and while there’s nothing theologically amiss about the doctrine I grew up with, it never felt fully mine. I had never been obliged to step up and own it. Being here allowed me not only to find a place I can call my own for the first time; it also drove me to the Bible and theology texts of all shapes and sizes. The process has shown me the shocking scope of things I didn’t know, and that is cause for both great humility and expectation.

When my the pastor says, “I ask you, Christian, what do you believe?” I stand with my brothers and sisters and say….

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

I recite it and know in a way beyond words that what I believe is true. That it is solid. That it will hold. That it will never be found wanting. That’s well worth a little geographical discomfort.

In “East Coker” the second of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, he closes with the following stanza.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

And that’s precisely what I’m doing. I am “still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion.” Georgia, despite being the last place I wanted to live, became the place where I needed to be. What I saw as an end was actually my beginning.

Once again, Eliot says it better in “East Coker” than I ever could:

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
    You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
    You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
    You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

In this place, this state and time, I have learned that what I “do not know is the only thing [I] know.” Here in this strange, broken, and somehow beautiful territory, I have become a farmer of sorts, one who turns over the soil of her own heart, removing weeds that hinder growth, sowing good seed, and watering it in faith.

Yeah, Georgia ain’t much, but it’s home.

The Wonder of Words

Of all the wise aphorisms and sayings in Poor Richard’s Almanack, my favorite is, “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” These days, I don’t have much time to squander, so I make the most of the free minutes I do have. If I’m not slaving away over a laptop, helping with homework, doing chores, or cheering at a little league game, I’m reading or trying my best to come up with an idea for an article.

But one of the few things I do allow myself is a glance at Prufrock News, which shows up in my inbox each weekday morning. It is a newsletter on books, arts, and philosophy. Usually, it contains 10 to 14 links to various topics, and more often than not, I read (or at least scan) them all. (By the way, it’s free. You can sign up here.) Well, a week or three back, I came across a book review that sounded interesting, so I clicked on through to the other side and started to read.

prufrock

To my delight, I discovered something so much better than a simple review.  The author–who I will not name for reasons you will see later–wrote sharp and witty prose. The sentence structure was fresh and engaging, the opinion honest and fair. It had me laughing and nodding along in agreement throughout. And this wasn’t an essay, a poem, or even a short story. It was a book review! There are hundreds of thousands of them on the internet, and that number is growing by the second. However, most of them are, shall we say, lacking. Go check your average review on Goodreads, and you’ll see something like this:

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Not so with the review I read. It was erudite and entertaining from beginning to end. So much so, in fact, that I did a little digging, found out where the author worked, and wrote him/her an email to say thanks and to gush briefly about how much I enjoyed the piece. Believe you me, I hesitated a bit before doing so. I mean, I’m not the type to hang around backstage doors (except for that one time I waited for Paul Simon), and I’m not an autograph hound (despite what the pyramid of signed baseballs on my bookshelves say). But I felt duty-bound as a fellow wordsmith to contact this author, compelled even. So I screwed my courage to the sticking place, wrote the email, and after about nineteen rounds of editing, took a deep breath and hit “Send.”

Imagine my surprise when a reply showed up in my inbox five hours later.

The author thanked me for my kind and encouraging words, and then he/she hit me with this:

I particularly appreciate your comments as this has been a difficult week—my mother passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly on Monday, aged only 68. At such times, a friendly email from a reader is like a gentle hand on one’s back, reminding one that life goes on and that laughter is an important part of it.

Flabbergasted, I re-read the brief note several times and sent back a reply to let the author know that I also experienced a loss recently and to say that he/she was in my prayers. That’s where it stopped. I’ve heard nothing back since, and I don’t need to.

However, weeks later, I’m still thinking about that exchange and what we both would have missed out on had it not occurred.

The writer of Hebrews tells us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (13:2). And, in some strange way, I feel like this is exactly what happened in our brief sharing of words. Despite my need to squeeze time dry and use every precious minute to keep up with my hectic workaday life, that day, something in me said, “Don’t be afraid. And whatever you do, don’t waste this moment.”

I could have used the fifteen minutes it took for me to write, edit, and send my message some other way. Knocking some tiny item off my to-do list perhaps or getting ahead on a monthly task for the magazine. But time that’s spent prudently isn’t always spent wisely. That’s why I’m glad to have used that quarter of an hour the way I did. Those minutes weren’t wasted because they were spent helping someone. And while the author and I might not be close in the traditional sense, for those few moments, we were. I was able to help him/her at a difficult time, and it’s humbling and astonishing to be used by God in such a way.

Proverbs 16:24 says, “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” I’m inclined to believe that’s true—for the hearer as well as the speaker. 

What about you, dear reader? Have you ever felt something tugging at you, telling you to do something that made little sense at the time? I’d love to hear about your moment in the comment section below!

The Books of 2014

Another year and another reading challenge have passed, and while I didn’t spend as much time between the covers of books as I would have liked, I’m happy to say I made my goal.

Of the 40 books I read, 16 were consumed via unabridged audiobook. I say that counts due to the insane amount of time I spend in the car getting to work and back again. And I can honestly say that there is something lovely about a well-done audiobook. For instance, I might never have gotten through the entirety of Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child in hardback form. The thing is an absolute doorstop! But the narrator of the audiobook did a lovely job presenting quotes from Julia’s letters and books in that familiar, loopy voice, which made me feel like I was getting it from the horse’s mouth. (On a related note: I’m currently listening to Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury on audiobook, and it’s a totally different experience than reading it in print. The lyrical element of his prose really comes through when you hear it!)

So, of the books I consumed in 2014, here are my top ten. Rather than do a straight list, I thought I’d create some categories and let you decide for yourself which, if any, you might like to peruse!

Best Fiction: Joyland by Stephen King

King really tells a great story. Joyland is just that. With its well-drawn characters and interesting plot, it carried me along and kept me in the car a lot longer than I should have been some days. He injects just enough horror to give this book zing without overpowering the narrative he established (a la Revival). Highly recommended.

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Best Non-Fiction: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

I love learning about history–especially things that I knew little to nothing about before I started reading. There were so many amazing people that made the Chicago World’s Fair possible, and it brought about so many inventions and innovations that it’s beyond belief. Did you know it spawned the Pledge of Allegiance? That it made the Ferris Wheel possible? Plus, you get a little history on one of America’s first serial killers in this gem. A fun read!

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Best Christian Work: Yawning At Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying by Drew Dyck

I read a lot…and I mean A LOT of Christian books for my job. With many of them, I scan a few chapters to see if the author might be a good fit for the magazine. Others I disregard outright because the material is trite, totally overdone, or terribly pedantic. Drew Dyck’s work is none of those. He takes a topic that has been discussed before (the awesome majesty of God) and makes readers consider it from an entirely different point of view.

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Most Overrated: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Okay, I may be the only person who read this book and didn’t enjoy much of it at all. I liked several of the characters (especially Hobie) and the emphasis on Dutch masterpieces like The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritus. But much of the book felt ponderous to me, too full of itself and overburdened by melodrama. Characters like Boris felt more stock than unique, and while it was a solid book, I hardly felt it was worth the effusive praise heaped on it by many critics.

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Most Underrated: The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game by Edward Achorn

There are a lot of books about baseball. Player bios, books about certain franchises, books about the history of the game, statistical reference books, instruction manuals, the list goes on and on. This one is very niche; it tells the story of the 1883 pennant fight between the St. Louis Browns and Philadelphia Athletics and the many colorful men who helped create the game we all know and love. If you like baseball, read it. If you like history books, read it. If you like biographies, well…you know what to do.

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Most Surprising: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Someone recommended this book to me a long time ago, and I never got around to reading it until I found a copy of it on audiobook in my local library. It’s a fun read to be sure, a quirky blend of literary nerdiness, wit, and surreal science fiction. Essentially, people can walk into copies of their favorite books and interact with the characters, but if you enter the original text, be careful! You can actually change the plot! Think The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy meets a fun whodunnit.

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One I’d Recommend to Others: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

We all know Robert Galbraith is really J.K. Rowling…and that this woman can write! Seriously, anyone who can create an entire magical universe like Harry Potter and then turn around and write a pretty amazing character study (A Casual Vacancy) as well as a piece of hard-boiled detective fiction like this one is an author who’s worth reading. The first in this series (The Cuckoo’s Calling) was also a great read.

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One I’d Beg Others Not to Read: The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

Thank goodness I only paid $1.99 for this on Kindle. The cover is great and the idea is solid, but I don’t have many nice things to say beyond that. The rules of the magical universe are left largely unexplained, the characters are very one-dimensional, and the plot is uneven. It was a good idea poorly executed, which is a real shame. A good editor could really have made something of this.

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One That Should Be Turned Into A Movie: Dr. Sleep by Stephen King

Yeah, King made the list twice. So what? 🙂 This is the sequel to The Shining, which I had to re-read before embarking on this book. It was fun to see how Danny and the other characters turned out, to see what kind of gifts the kid really had and how he put them to good use. It was a great read on its own, but when you pair it with the first work, everything comes full circle rather nicely. A little strange (it is King after all), but the booga-booga factor on this one is great. Super creepy in all the right ways. And it would translate into a great film with the right director and cast. 

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One I Wish I’d Written: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resiliance, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Apparently everyone and their drunk uncle has read this book, but I just now got around to it. And let me tell you, I am never going to complain about my life again. You want to talk about challenges, pain, suffering, and trials? Louis Zamperini experienced them all and came through it all. The man hit bottom, met Christ, and crawled out of a PTSD-induced hole I can’t even imagine, and become a true servant of God. And now his life is ours to learn from. I wish I could have met him in person before he passed.

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Okay folks, there you have it. Ten books I read this year and thought I’d pass on. Tell me what books you loved this year and if you think I’d enjoy them. I’m always looking for something new and — if you’ll pardon the pun — novel to read.

One Bookworm’s “Rotten Apples”

Okay, it’s been forever since I did a book blog, but I swear I have a good excuse. I’m working to fill two roles at work (Content/Copy Editor and Managing Editor of the magazine), buying a house, and joining The Southern Order of Storytellers. Add health concerns and family issues into the mix, and I’ve been one heckabusy gal!

However, this one sounded like a fun (and comparatively short) book blog, so here we go. The lovely folks at The Broke and the Bookish want to know our shameful little secrets, our private penchants, and our otherwise bizarre bibliophilic behaviors. So, ladies and gents, I give you my Top Ten Bookish Confessions!

1. I sometimes fall asleep while reading in the bathtub and drop my book in the water—This has happened more times than I care to admit (though never with my Kindle thank goodness!) The most memorable victims were my first copy of Dracula, a friend’s copy of Black Beauty (which I replaced), and Moby Dick (which I found deliciously ironic.)

2. Until the fourth book, I scoffed at the Harry Potter series—However, when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out, I was in college studying to be an English teacher. I was taking a class in middle school literature and recognized I would have to know something about what my future students were reading. So I checked out the first book from the library and fell promptly in love. So much so, in fact, that I picked up my copy of book seven at midnight wearing my house colors! Ravenclaw rocks!!!

3. I sometimes skip words when I’m reading really exciting scenes just to see what happens—Granted, I always force myself to go back once I recognize that I’m doing it, but it’s still sad to find yourself skimming glorious words. I remember gliding over a certain chapter in The Scarlet Pimpernel just to see if Marguerite would make it to Sir Percy Blakeney in time.

4. I’ve always wanted to name a kid “Atticus”—No lie! I’ve admire the noble protagonist of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird so much that I’ve almost thought about about adopting a boy just to name him Nathaniel Atticus Hughes. The first name, naturally, is borrowed from another great love of my life, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

5. I utterly loathe James Joyce’s Ulysses—I can’t remember if I’ve ever admitted this before, but it’s true. I’m a confirmed connoussuer of literature who loves obscure books and chose to read Anna Karenina at the beach one summer, but I’m at a loss when it comes to why this book qualified as “The Best Book of All Time” in some circles.

6. I sometimes judge books by their covers—At times, when I don’t have a particular book in mind to read (which is rare), I actually roam the hallways of a bookstore just looking at covers. If it looks interesting or does something novel (HA! Pun!), I read the back matter. If that’s worth the cost, I usually buy and read it. That’s how I discovered books like Knick Knack Paddy Whack by Ardal O’Hanlon and Night of the Avenging Blowfish: A Novel of Covert Operations, Love, and Luncheon Meat by John Welter.

7. I get high on “old book smell”—When I travel home to Jacksonville, I try my darndest to stop in and shop at Chamblin Book Mine. The place is a gloriously messy place, a group of buildings and rooms cobbled together and stuffed to the rafters with used, new, and rare books. It’s a beautiful fire hazard I’d take pride in going up in like some nerdy Viking. I’ve gone in there and lost hours at a time as I search through stacks looking for books to fill the shopping bags I just traded in. Seriously, if I had just a little less dignity, I’d roll on the floor like a dog does when he finds something he likes.

8. I buy books I know I will likely never read—There’s something about empty bookshelves that unnerves me. I want them filled with colorful spines galore, titles that just beg people to take them off the shelves and give them a go. Also, I like it when people come into the house and remark about how many books I have. I guess it’s the same way a hunter feels about putting the heads of his kills on the wall over the mantelpiece.

9. I firmly believe the movie is NEVER better than the book—Let me put it to you this way, I was the ONLY person who walked out of the Jim Caviezel version, for lack of a better term, spittin’ mad. Everyone else loved it, and all I could think about was how the ending ruined the overall theme of revenge and made it too “neat.”

10. I once tricked my students into turning on one another like rabid dogs to get them to read literatureNothing was off limits when I was in the classroom. If it would get “non-readers” to open the book, I was game. To get them interested in The Crucible, I set up a scenario where one half of the class was going to get in trouble for something the other half did. They flipped on each other like mid-level mobsters. I also once filled a cauldron with hot water and dry ice and impersonated a witch to teach Macbeth and made my students write papers entirely in Newspeak to prove that language matters. It was doubleplusgood.

A Monk, A Little Person, and a Crazed Fan Walk Into a Bar…

This week’s Top Ten List from The Broke and the Bookish didn’t sound hard at first glance, but every time I started to pick one, I remembered I’d already used the character in a previous “best of” post. (Many of them were “literary crushes“.) For this one, I tried going to books I loved and selecting the second bananas, the third wheels, and those often overlooked in favor of the leading men and their ladies. However, sometimes I failed and went for one of the more obvious choices because they were too good to pass up!

Top Ten Favorite Characters

1. Tom Bombadil (The Lord of the Rings)Though he only appears in three chapters and is briefly mentioned by characters in a few others, I’ve always had a soft spot for the old “moss gatherer.” After all, he speaks in stress-timed seven beat lines, refers to himself in third person, and can sing trees to sleep. So old he claims to have seen “the first raindrop and the first acorn,” he is one of those characters like the Entwives who is destined for obscurity. As Tolkien put it, “Even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).”
 

2. Bast (The Kingkiller Chronicle)—I still don’t know exactly how I feel about Bast. I know that he honors Kvothe and that he wants him to come back to himself. It’s the “why” question that’s bugging me. He’s Fae, after all, and he might have something up his magical sleeve. Still, he’s beautiful, mysterious, fiercely protective, and impish in a way that is utterly irresistible. If you haven’t read the first two books in this series, for the love of pete, get started!

3. Pearl (The Scarlet Letter)—How can you not love a character who is, until the last few chapters, a symbol rather than a real person? Yes, until Dimmesdale claims her as his child and dies on the scaffold where he should have been when the novel opened, she is the living embodiment of the scarlet letter Hester wears on her breast. Mercurial, merciless, and (at times) creepy, she never leaves a reader wanting for action.

4. Prior Phillip (Pillars of the Earth)—I know he’s not a “minor” character in this work, but compared to Jack Jackson, Aliena, and Tom Builder, he has a lot less screen time. Phillip is such a moral character that he sometimes frustrates what should be simple, but his motive of restoring Kingsbridge is so laudable, I sometimes found myself less frustrated with him than I might have been otherwise. Even when he did something I didn’t agree with, I knew it was never done out of malice. That’s hard to pull off in a character….especially in a work this dense and complicated. Industrious, clever, and not above a political play when it helps the people he loves, Phillip is quite the engaging monk.
 
5. Tyrion Lannister (The Song of Ice and Fire)—If you’re watching the TV series on HBO or are currently reading the series, kindly skip over this one as there will be some spoilers. Go on, shoo……. Okay, folks. He’s a little person in a world that is built on and run by strength, yet he survives and somehow manages to be near the seat of power at all times! Seriously, he shot his own father in the stomach with a crossbow while he was on the toilet!! How’s that for cutthroat!? As the books have gone on, he has become one of the most dynamic characters, sliding from creepy evil to almost neutral bordering on good. I have a feeling that he’ll still be on the board when this epic series comes to an end in two more books.
 
6. Marvin the Paranoid Android (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)—Chronically depressed and bored because he has “a brain the size of a planet,” Marvin is one of the characters in Douglas Adams’ universe that isn’t always in the center of the action. However, we’d miss him if he weren’t there. I’ve only read the first book in the series, but I adored him in it. How can you not love something that so intelligent that even the most complex task is no match for him and everyone who tries to access his brain ends up suicidal!?  
 
7. The Wife of Bath (The Canterbury Tales)—Chaucer’s lady was way ahead of her time. Running her own fabric weaving business and on the hunt for husband number five on this famous pilgrimage to Beckett’s shrine, the lovely Wife of Bath knows how to tell a good tale and flirt up a storm with any and all available men on the journey with her. She’s one of the reasons I’m sad Chaucer never got the chance to finish this masterwork; we only get one of her stories and no hint as to which man she might have bagged before they returned to London.
 
8. Frau Totenkinder (Fables)—Again, if you haven’t read this series, break open your piggie banks and go get as many of the trade paperbacks as you can! In this series, fairy tale characters are real and have been pushed out of the Homelands by the Adversary. Snow White, Rose Red, and every other character you can think of call New York City (and a small farm in rural New York) home. It’s clever, creative, and amazing because Bill Willingham and his team of writers and artists manage to take stories you know and turn them on their ear. For instance, Prince Charming is the same guy from all three fairy tales (he has married Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella), and don’t get me started on Jack (the amalgamation of all “Jack” stories like Jack and Jill, Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack Frost, etc. He’s a totally awesome trickster figure.) But on to the sinister Frau Totenkinder. She’s the leader of the magicians in Fabletown and, like Jack, is an amalgamated character who represents many of the unnamed witches in the tales and legends. She looks like an old lady, frail and weak, but the truth is she is one of if not the most powerful characters to escape from the Homelands. She’s not all sunshine and Gummy Bears though; you can’t always trust her!
 
9. Colonel Christopher Brandon (Sense and Sensibility)—This awesome character is the epitome of both words in the book’s title. He is practical, good at solving problems, and tactful, but his heart is sensitive to the needs of others. (Though I wouldn’t cast him as a member of the cult of sensibility that Marianne belongs to). Unlike the cad John Willoughby or the daffy Edward Ferrars, he’s a force for good and an altogether perfect gentleman of means and substance. It’s always so lovely to see him get what he wants in the end…though why he would want Marianne has always been beyond me. 
 
10. Annie Wilkes (Misery)—Again, not a ancillary character by any means, but when her name popped up, I had to go with her. I mean, really, who hasn’t wanted to grab an author and cut off his foot for killing off a favorite character? Seriously! There’s something so marvelously wacky about Annie Wilkes–she’s prim and proper and hates all the “cockadoodie” words in Sheldon’s new novel, but she has no trouble whatsoever in running a state trooper over with a lawnmower. That’s a real dichotomy to have in one character. Evil and weird is always such a winning combination!
 
***I will gladly pay anyone who can tell me why some of my blog posts go all single spaced and italicized without me telling them to. It really gets on my last nerve….that and the fact I STILL haven’t won a Freshly Pressed Award!***