As you know from the last post, Alan Jacobs splendid, thoughtful, profound book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction got me thinking about my own calling to encourage reading. I think it is fair to say that I promote books that are thoughtful and often inspiring and I often make claims that a recommended book is well written and a delight to read. We stock but don’t often review serious books that are dry, or that are overly specialized in ways that ordinary readers would be bored. There is a case for wading through demanding works, of course but here I often recommend those I think our faithful fans “ought” to read.
And yet, I was struck in reading Jacobs book—itself a bit demanding (it’s not published by Oxford University Press for nothing!)—how I don’t always tell about my true favorites, titles that have brought me not just insight and perspective, but great pleasure.
And so, a few that were real page-turners (as they say. Are there books where one doesn’t have to turn the pages?) I’ve just recently read a few that I loved-loved-loved and are in the running for the best books I’ve read all year. I’ll tell you about more in a few days.
My far, the most moving book I’ve encountered in ages was Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron (Nelson; $15.99. in paperback or $27.99 in unabridged audio CD with Cron reading it himself.) In the penultimate chapter I was almost sobbing, big tears streaming down my face as I sat on a chair in the backyard, late at night, under the store’s outdoor light. Beth came out just then and I was strangely embarrassed (am I so jaded that I am ashamed to be moved by good writing and a tender tale?) And yet I wanted it to be known: this is a book that got to me. That second to last chapter—about the author’s good efforts to trust the heroic steps towards freedom and courage in his own children after having chronicled his own dysfunctional past—is worth the price of the book. (Do I say this because my own youngest daughter, who has been so brave with her own challenges, has just graduated from high-school, and his description of his children doing an amazing stunt got to me? I suppose, but I challenge anybody to read that compelling chapter and not be impressed.)
â€¨So, Ian Cron, The Man. He wrote an earlier book which a lot of our friends and fans really dug, Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale (NavPress; $14.99) which was a novel (of sorts) about an Episcopal priest who goes on retreat to learn about Saint Francis, and the new kind of church that emerges from his journey. It is pretty amazing, got great, great reviews, was edgy and funny and pretty provocative. Cron has spoken at the International Arts Movement events with Mako Fujimura and is known amongst those serious about cultural engagement, innovative ministry, incarnational work rooted in historic liturgy. Did I say Cron is an Episcopal priest? I’m usually quite quick to size up a book, but I swear the first weeks of displaying that book a few years back I thought it was a memoir; not fiction. Maybe it is a bit autobiographical? â€¨â€¨Well, this new memoir (of sorts, he says) seems like a straight autobiography, and I suppose it is mostly true as far as he can recall. That is what he says in the extraordinary opening. (What memoir is otherwise?) And you know what? This rings true to me because it is—like so many truly great memoirs such as Take This Bread (Sarah Miles) or Liar’s Club (Mary Karr) or Coop (Michael Perry) or Salvation on Sand Mountain (Dennis Covington) or Million Miles in a Thousand Days (Donald Miller)–you can’t make this stuff up.
I’m just telling you, you can hardly imagine a life like this. It may read like a novel, and you care about the characters, who, in this case, is mostly Mr. Cron.
It isn’t that complicated. Cron’s parents were wealthy Americans living in England in the early 60s, working in the film biz. His dad discovered the first James Bond, they met classic stars, did glamorous stuff, lived the high life in the entertainment world before the cultural explosions of the 60s. Years later—after severe alcoholism, abuse, family dysfunction driven by his fathers depression and unemployment and a significant level of missing information—Cron realizes his father is also a CIA agent. â€¨â€¨Ian is raised, as he tells in some entertaining chapters that capture elementary and high school as well as anything I’ve read in a long while, in a very wealthy suburban town (Greenwich, Connecticut) but poorer than their neighbors. His mother wears her old mink coats from their previous lives in London, Ian and his siblings seem like outcasts in the strict Catholic school. He is a playful boy, eager, open to things of God (there is a scene which took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes of him doing a pretend Eucharist in the woods, with a fawn watching!) But there is this growing dark cloud rumbling in the family. The pain is palpable, but this story is not depressing; Cron writes with vigor and a lot of humor. I laughed out loud often—I’m telling you about a book that I truly enjoyed, after all. The writing is breezy and fun and funny.
And so, the boy with the hunger for God gets swept into the heavy drinking scene with his high-school friends. “There would soon be keg parties somewhere every night, late-night pool hopping at estates in the backcountry, blustery boasts about sexual conquests (most of which were lies), and the yearly ritual of being banned from country club golf courses for driving carts into water hazards Most of us didn’t have summer jobs, at least not full-times ones, since our parents underwrote our expenses. It’s a good thing Focus on the Family didn’t know about us: James Dobson would’ve had an aneurysm.” I don’t know much about Gossip Girls or The O.C. TV shows, but I thought his adolescence must have been like that; out of control rich kids with huge talent and good looks and way to much access to drugs and alcohol.
And then, already experiencing dangerous blackouts (like when he drove his buddies to a Steve Miller Band concert and wrecked his car) he joined Young Life. (“It was dumber than I’d thought it would be. Despite my efforts to not look amused, the ridiculous stuff going on up front made me smile from time to time. Id’ forgotten the goodness of laughter when it wasn’t tethered to cynicism.”) As you might guess, he finds a relationship with God, becomes a prodigal in college, and yet, again, ends up encountering the hound of heaven.
He has as an epigram before one chapter a line from Alan Jones: “We cannot but tremble on the brink of surrender.” From college to marriage to ordination, through the years of counseling and his longing for some reconciliation with his father, to his own triumphant (my word, not his) experiences as a father himself, Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me shares episodes and insights, month by month, year by year, through grief and loss and hope and recovery, spiritual renewal and almost unbelievable epiphanies
of God’s love breaking through, bringing grace and goodness and new opportunities.
Cron is an excellent writer for this genre; it is not highbrow or deep, but it is clever and well crafted. He uses words that sometimes pop onto the page; vital metaphors and previous lines reappear adding subtle layers of meaning and delighting the attentive reader. The narrative keeps moving, keeps us turning those pages and shaking our head, eager to see what in the world could possible happen next. Rowan Williams (The Archbishop of Canterbury, who doesn’t show up on blurbs on too many books published by Nelson) notes that Cron “writes with astonishing energy and freshness; his metaphors stick fast in the imagination. This is neither a simple memoir of hurt endured, nor a tidy story of reconciliation and resolution. It is–rather like Augustine’s Confessions–a testimony to the unfinished business of grace.” Exactly.
This memoir gets the thumbs up from a lot of good folk—from Richard Rohr to Craig Groeschel to Phyllis Tickle (“Simply the best memoir I have read in years.”) Jeremy Begbie says it is “compelling writing of the highest order.” The learned Archbishop is right about that “unfinished grace” bit; nobodies memoir is ever quite done. I was left gasping for more at the end. I’m officially calling for a sequel.
One of my all time favorite books is an intense, serious, long, literary memoir by James Carroll which won the prestigious American Book Award in 1996 entitled An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us (Mariner; $15.95.) Carroll came of age in the early 60s in the high-rolling world of inside-the-Washington Beltway, attending family events with the likes of Robert McNamara and dating President Johnson’s daughter. His Irish Catholic mother expected him to become a priest. His father, whom he adored, ended up being one of the top two or three people in the Pentagon, literally picking bombing targets in North Viet Nam. In seminary, Carroll mets up with the likes of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and the nonviolent Catholic peace activists led by the Berrigan brothers. You can imagine the family conflict in those stressful years. It is a tragic and eloquent book and there are numerous reasons why it touched me so–I still often recommend it. I immediately thought of it as I started Ian Cron’s book but I found Cron’s Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me to be less intense, much funnier, and finally more inspiring. Carroll’s painful falling out with his father was over faith and politics and war; Cron’s father was a depressed drunk and we don’t get to know him at all in the book. His right wing politics were mostly kept to himself and his work for the Agency was well hidden. (The scene of all these black-suited spooks showing up at his father’s funeral, with notes saying that he was the greatest man I ever knew, notes saying he was my mentor, notes saying that he saved my life, remains poignant and mystifying to Cron. True to spy fashion, I guess, the men wouldn’t talk. They even weirdly took back some of the flowers and wreaths they had brought to the viewing, as if even they were classified.)
Cron gets few answers about all this as his father ages and even less regarding the father’s negligence. In fact, mostly just this:
“I was trained to drink milk and then swish whiskey around my mouth before we went out for the night” my father continued. “They said the milk would make the smell of the Scotch stick to my breath.”â€¨â€¨
“What was the point?” I asked.
The Agency wanted people to think of me as the harmless, shallow American who drank too much. That way people wouldn’t be as careful about what they said around me.” He looked away. “One day I became the person I was pretending to be.”â€¨â€¨My heart was pounding. There was something I’d waited my entire life to hear him say, words that I was convinced could change everything, past, present, and future.
I could tell he knew what I was hoping for when his face darkened. He fixed me with a gelid glaze. “That’s what happened,” he said, folding his arms across his chest.
As the episode unfolds a bit more, and the conversation ends, Cron says to his wife, “That was an explanation. I was hoping for an apology.”
â€¨â€¨Yet, as many resilient kids do, Cron figured out how to have some good times. Before his high school drinking set in, he was a bit of a loner–odd, even. He tells about his experiences as an altar boy, his loyal British nanny, his eccentric boyhood. I loved it, and related—these feelings are pretty universal, I’d guess. When he swipes some road flares from his garage, taking them to a place in the woods where kids would hang out, he became a local hero. I love the writing here; enjoy this excerpt:â€¨â€¨
Just when I thought the light from the phosphorus ziggurat couldn’t get any brighter or bigger, it quadrupled in luminescence and size. It became a five-foot standing wave of colors, pulsing white to red, vermilion to orange. It burned temporary blind spots into our retinas, but we couldn’t teak our eyes off the pillar of fire. It was terrible and wondrous to behold.
Once we determined that the inferno wouldn’t kill us in the short term, the now sizable mob inched toward it, as though tiptoeing toward a burning bush. By now, the tower was roaring so bright that the coming night was a bright as the day. When it hissed and spit sulfurous sparks , we jumped backward and shielded our eyes and then approached it again. Thick columns of smoke pushed into our faces by the light winds made our noses and throats burn.
But the glory of what we had unleashed was too much for eleven-year-old boys to take in all at once. Think of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the crazy French archeologist takes the top off the ark of the covenant and looks inside, and his eyes bug out and he screams, It’s beautiful!” That was us, only our faces didn’t melt off. We were seized by ecstasy. Johnny Gopnik was so enraptured that he kissed me full on the cheek. He began dancing around the blinding fire, throwing his head back and screaming great whoops of joy. Soon, Johnny’s frenzied delirium infected the rest of us. Twenty boys danced around the fire like heathen savages on a South Pacific Island, lit up on moonshine, while their little sisters looked on wide-eyed, sucking their thumbs. It was a scene from Lord of the Flies, only innocent and precious. None of us would ever be so beautifully eleven years old again.
Gopnik was the class star, an insider cool kid who had teased and bullied Ian, the boy with the frumpy nanny and bad car and glamorous mother and weird name. The way he sets up this episode, and then the few sentences following it are deeply touching to me, and will be to anybody who has longed to be accepted, who has gone to great lengths to find approval in the eyes of others. I loved this portion and the book, and suspect anyone with a bit of nostalgia or self-awareness will too. In fact, I was hooked from the start as he uses the
device of decoding an old faded photograph (which is actually the cover of the book.) I know it may sound like a cliche, but it really works. This is what memoir can do for us–it can put us in touch with our own longings and fears and joys, help us get a sense of our story. Anyway, his youthful years are very well told.
As Cron gets older, as I’ve said, he drinks too much. A kind Young Life friend, after the Steve Miller Band concert car-wreck fiasco, tries to speak truth to him, explaining how Ian becomes like his dad when he drinks.
I stopped breathing. I stared at Tyler and he at me. A gust of January wind put its shoulder to the side of the barn and tried to push it down. Instead, it found a crack in a beam and settled for making it whistle. There was no other sound—until I bowed my head and cried.
There are acts of love so subtle and delicate that the sweep of their beauty goes unseen. I know of none more miraculous and brave than that of a seventeen-year-old boy coming to his friend’s side to take his tear-soaked face to his breast.
Don’t you just love reading words like that? Isn’t it a joy knowing that as goodness happens amidst great pain and brokenness, that an experienced writer can craft sentences that draw us in, sharing his or her story with us, and thereby allowing us, too, to take courage. We all need “acts of love, subtle and delicate.” We sometimes can get them from another’s well-told story. This is one of those, a rip-roaring rides through London and Connecticut, high-school and college, young parenthood and discerning the call to Christian ministry. glory amidst pain, helping us along our own way.