Summer Memoirs: 15 Fun, True Stories

In the last post, we listed a batch of summer fiction reads, novels you can take to along on vacation or carry to a getaway spot finding great pleasure and enjoyment (and, usually, something to learn along the way) in a good story.  Some were a bit more highbrow than others, some less demanding, all pretty interesting in their own way.  We think they illustrated, too, the diversity of our inventory and our curating each section of our shop with certain values and concerns.  Hope you enjoyed our list of 15 novels.

Here is an equally enchanting and quite diverse list of 15 more recommendations, mostly memoirs, autobiographies, or writerly reflections.  Any of these would provide a good number of enjoyable and edifying hours; a pretty good bargain for your entertainment dollar.  We hope you like memoirs as much as we do. 

Please note that, as with other genres of books, not every title on this list is good for every person.  We have always felt that as Christians we can (and often should) read books that are not necessarily written from our own religious perspective.  A few may have some language that some may not appreciate.  Some share convictions that are not what you believe.  We understand.  Still, if read with discernment, we are happy to stock this sort of wide diversity of important, quality writers who give us their take on life and times.  We really don’t mind writing this little disclaimer, but wonder if any other store has to do this.  Most secular bookstores have few scrupples about graphic language and most Christian bookstores just don’t carry many non-Christian books.  Puts us in an interest niche, and hope you fine our quirkiness useful for your journey.  Enjoy.

9781400071722.jpgHome By Another Way: Notes from the Caribbean  Robert Benson (Waterbrook) $13.99  I’ve told you before about this gracious, elegant writer who can tell a story with such clarity and kindness that it makes the heart sing.  He is a prayer man (and has several books about his attraction to monastic spirituality, including two about Benedictine formation practices.)  But he also writes profoundly meaningful books about other stuff: one that I really love is called Digging In: Tending to Life in Your Own Backyard (Waterbrook; $12.95) that gave me great pleasure.  It is on gardening and landscaping in his back yard (and, equally about relationships and place and community) making it a perfect summer book (better to read about lawn work than do it, in my view, but don’t tell Benson.) He has a splendidly thoughtful memoir about enjoying baseball called The Game: One Man, Nine Innings, A Love Affair with Baseball (Waterbrook; $12.95.)  Home... is about how he and his wife regularly travel to a tropical island and the sense of “home” they discover there.  Sure there are upbeat stories about island life but it is more profoundly about finding a special place in the world…all three of these seem like summer books to me.  Enjoy them—you will be glad you did.

Jesus-My-Father-The-CIA-and-Me2.jpgJesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me…A Memoir of Sorts  Ian Cron (Nelson) $15.99  You may recall that I raved about this in a longer review earlier this summer.   A poignant, funny, and very moving memoir of a pretty darn dysfunctional family and how Cron came to know God’s grace.  I’m telling ya, this is a winner—everybody who reads it then foists it on anybody else they can, it is that good.  It is only one of two on the list that I’ve already reviewed, but just has to be on here again; we admire this author’s unique voice, his good attention to writing well, and the way he can balance pathos and joy, almost never with sentimentality or mawkish prose.  Give it a shot.  You won’t regret getting to know this wonderful little boy with a sad but fascinating family,  learning about his early faith, his drift into high school trouble and trouble-making and his eventual calling into the Episcopal ministry.  This look backward for him is healing for us all as he is embraced by Hope, and learns to be a dad himself– without quite as many mysteries as his own father.

Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.small.jpgThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  Rebecca Skloot (Broadway) $16.00  I hope you’ve heard of this New York Times bestseller.  It has gotten rave accolades from all sorts of places (including a view in Entertainment Weekly whose writer said simply “I couldn’t put this books down.”)  It is an odd and compelling story; in 1951 doctors took a sampling of cells from Henrietta (without asking or obtaining permission.)  Those cells never died.  They launched a medical revolution–including the development of the polio vaccine– and a multimillion-dollar industry.  More than twenty years later, it says on the cover, her children found out.  Their lives would never be the same.  It is a riveting story and, yes, as you most likely know, she was a poor black tobacco farmer, making this not only a remarkable story (her cells have been sold by the billions) but an expose of racism and an exploration of ethics and research and science and…The Washington Post says “Henrietta Lacks comes fully alive on the page” and the New York Times reviewer, after discussing how interesting the science of it all is said, “It made my hair stand on end.”  Everybody I know who has read this multi-layered story has loved it.

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts.jpgIn The Sanctuary of Outcasts  Neil White (Harper) $14.99  I don’t know where I first heard of this but it, too, is a high-octane, nearly unbelievable story of loss and redemption, written with surprising good humor, elegance and stunning detail.  The author committed some serious white collar crime–bank fraud, to be exact. He gets sent to a very unusual prison in Carville, Louisiana–the last remaining U.S. leper colony, a place for those disfigured by this odd disease, a community comprised of patients, nuns, and criminals.   You can imagine the prose–from the landscape to the people, the horrific and the beauty.  But more importantly, you can imagine his journey, this new life of service and solidarity and hard-won realizations.  Neil White’s strange new world is called, by John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, “Hilarious, astonishing, and deeply moving.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this.  I’m not sure we ever will again.  Truly amazing.

Craving Grace: A Story of Faith, Failure, and My Search for Sweetness  Lisa Velthouse (Saltriver) $16.99  The warm photo of an overflowing jar of honey on the cover speaks to the evocative way this story unfolds, ruminations about a faith journey that is full of longing, desire, hope.  Yet, this fine Christian young lady just couldn’t sustain a life of being good, earning God’s okay, trying to find that sweet spot in her relationship with God.  She decides to commence a significant fast; again, her sincere efforts to find some great connection with the Divine fall short.  Unless something world-rocking happens that allow her to break through stale religious practices, revealing a greater depth of God’s saving grace.  She’s a good writer, has had connections with various ministries (including a spell at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids.)  And she says she’s always had a sweet tooth.  A lovely, moving, meandering faith journey, nicely told.

Bossypants_Tina_Fey.jpgBossypants  Tina Fey (Little Brown) $26.99  Okay, this isn’t the memoir of a sweet faith journey.  Or maybe it is.  You know who she is, you know she can be more ribald than she should be, and you also surely know she is one of the most captivating and appreciated comedians working today.  Her earliest days, her work in discerning her calling, her entry into the serious world of hard comedy and her life-changing stint at SNL and into international fame as a TV star, it’s all here.  She is self deprecating and more humble than many we’ve come to tolerate in this schizoid comedy scene. Her telling of working with Sarah Palin is really interesting and quite honorable.  And fun. I’m not going to lie, my gentle eyes were offended by a few wisecracks and I laughed out loud at a lot. She really is an interesting person, and a funny, funny gal.  Even the blurbs on the back are funny.  Come on, you know you’ve been wishing to read it.  Why not?

62147668_b.jpgGlobal Soccer Mom: Changing the World is Easier Than You Think  Shayne Moore (Zondervan) $14.99  My hunch is that those most interested in a book like this might roll their eyes at the silly subtitle; we know it isn’t easy.  But hear her out: it can be done!  It isn’t “easy” and we can’t change the entire world, but we can take steps of faithfulness, reach out, get involved, do something!  As Shayne Moore shows in this fantastic reflection, ordinary “soccer moms” can learn to engage the wider world.  Okay, she isn’t really ordinary, even though she say’s she never knew anything about public policy issues and just throws on her ordinary jeans most days.  Still,  the President calls her on the phone.  Tell that to the other soccer moms at the booster club or PTO candy sales meeting.  But I do love that her assistant (okay, like I said, she isn’t entirely ordinary) is small town normal enough to not believe the caller was, in fact, inquiring of Ms Moore from the President’s office.  She thought it was a prank, and hung up!  Allll-righteeee then, that is a story! 

Mama Moore is an excellent writer, an enjoyable, breezy author, and she really is an inspiring human being.  She has earned the right to be heard, a voice of a suburban mom who makes a difference.   She has learned to do workshops, start study groups, serve on mission trips, encourage others to lobby on behalf of the poor, figure out which non-profits to learn about and support.  It has lead her to some fun moments (she helps put together a small TV spot on voting with actress Julia Roberts; they naturally talked about their children, and Julia noted she had spit-up on her shirt.  Been there.  Well, not the Julia Roberts part, but having baby spit-up on a shirt on my way to a speaking engagement or TV interview.) So she really is normal, active in a conservative church, and has a vibrant heart for the world’s poor. I love the line from Bono on the back of the book: “Politicians, watch out…Shayne Moore is an unstoppable force.” She was one of the original members of ONE and supports and works closely with Grower’s First.  She has an MA in theology, continues to write at her blog, ( and shows you step by step how you, too, can get involved in making the world a better place.  Importantly, yes, she still manages a home and spends most of her time doing laundry, cooking meals, helping with homework and “hollering at my kids to get in the van” on their way to sports events or music rehearsals. Maybe you can’t quite relate, but I bet you know somebody who can. Why not give this as a mid-summer encouragement?

9780316031912_154X233.jpgMarriage and Other Acts of Charity: A Memoir  Kate Braestrup (Little Brown) $24.99  A few years ago we discovered the very moving memoir Here If You Need Me about Braestrup’s work as a UU chaplain for the State Park rangers in Maine, and her grueling wilderness work after the unexpected death of her young husband. What a book!  (More recently I’ve enjoyed her introduction to prayer, Beginner’s Grace, which in a brief review I said was written in a manner that brings to mind Barbara Brown Taylor.)  This recent book is somewhat of a  meditation, partly a memoir, mostly a grand telling of her second marriage, what it is like to be in love again after the death of her first husband, and what the whole lovely second chance  is all about.  Very well written, gentle, honest, touching.  She’s still a chaplain to those in horrendous crisis in a very rugged place.  And she’s a deeply thoughtful, liberal theologian.  And a woman in love who just has to write about the mystery of it all.  Very, very nicely done.

photo6662.jpgUnexpected Destinations: An Evangelical Pilgrimage to World Christianity  Wesley Granberg-Michaelson (Eerdmans) $24.00  I think I first crossed paths with Granberg-Michaelson back when he worked as an aid on Capitol Hill, a hero of mine, Senator Mark Hatfield.  I was lobbying about the Viet Nam peace accords or something.  Soon, he ended up as a fine writer and editor at Sojourners and was for years Jim Wallis’ best friend and partner in crime.  When we opened our bookstore we were pleased within the next decade to sell several great Granberg-Michaelson books, ahead of their time, about earth-keeping and creation care.  As this marvelous new book tells, he eventually became a denominational leader (in the
Reformed Church in America) and rose to leadership in the World Council of Churches and several other global ecumenical ministries.  I know the story of being a judicatory head of an old-line denomination doesn’t sound that thrilling, but this is marvelous stuff.  As Ron Sider says, it is “delightful, moving, important…a wonderful story.”  Everybody that knows Wes knows him as a wonderful man, a wise leader (in fact, we stock a book of his on leadership that is quite good) and a bold prophet, always with a missional perspective.  This is part spiritual memoir–from his earliest days in a rural evangelical home, through Young Life, and so much more over a lifetime of service, but it is also a larger reflection about not only the complexities of contemporary discipleship but of the nature of ecumenism, the need for a graced imagination when working in and with large, flawed institutions, and how to find joy in the daily grind of serving God in large and small ways.  I am not done with this book yet, and I am sure I won’t be for a while.  It is a great read, but also a profound one.  I can hardly recommend it more, for those who care about mainline churches, or for those who do not.   

Large.9781610973175.jpgThe Messenger: Friendship, Faith, and Finding One’s Way  Douglas John Hall (Wipf & Stock) $22.00  This brief book deserves a different review by someone somewhat more acquainted with the main context of the story, but yet, I was so moved by it, I have to tell recommend it.  I cannot briefly say the ways this touched me, made me think, made me sad, made me rejoice, and even shed a tear over a man I never met.  In this straight-forward story, world famous United Church of Canada theologian Douglas Hall (Emeritus at McGill University) tells about a man who was a messenger of the gospel for him, a man he met at a church camp in his teens and who, through letters and friendship, served as a life-long mentor.  The man’s name was Bob Miller and those involved in the Student Christian Movement in the 1950s into the ’70s in North America (but especially Canada) knew him well.  The SCM had connections with the World Council of Churches and was a respected, important mainline denominational campus ministry in those years, perhaps parallel to the evangelically oriented InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.  Anyone with interest in the history of mainline congregation ministry among students will find this historically very illuminating.  Hall, himself a world-class scholar, was drawn to serious scholarship through this kind man that nurtured students, that stayed in touch, that introduced art and books and ideas about philosophy and theology and church and society into their formative minds.  This is, in many ways, a tribute to the role of a mentor.  Hall bears witness (as Walt Brueggemann puts it on the back cover) “to the incarnational way of faith that impinges itself upon real life in the world.   Hall is no saint-maker, but he knows one when he sees one!”

I think The Messenger is strong for several reasons, even though it is laden with names I’ve never heard of (and the names of the relatives of these people–and, my hand to heaven, sometimes the names of the babysitters of the relatives of the people I’ve never heard of.)  Yet, I was riveted.  I groaned at times when things went badly, I sighed at the misfortune of illness and academic difficulties.  I rejoiced when friends stayed in touch, visited each other in towns I’ve never heard of.  (I almost got out a Canadian map to help me through this almost too tedious reportage of SCM chapters—units as they were called—and colleges and camps that played a role in Hall’s formation.)  And yet, as I say, it kept me in its grip, turning page after page, caring about this faith journey in these perilous times.  It is a strong book because03-15b.jpg this whole story is, in fact, as Brueggemann notes, incarnational.  This is the story of a cohort of students, growing into their theologian studies, their PhDs, their work and families and careers and professions and aging.  Bob Miller stood by them all, often through letters and sometimes at conferences and gatherings, and occasionally in pastoral visits, all across the continent. 

This is no small thing about a few informal friendship.  These were, for what it’s worth, the leaders of a new generation of Protestant Christian leaders and Miller and his colleagues mentored them into the ways of rigorous faith and theological reflection.  Some studied under Karl Barth, they studied with people who knew Bonhoeffer (Miller himself distributed the first editions of Cost of Discipleship into Canada—imagine!)  Hall’s story unfolds at Union in New York City as he grappled with Calvin and Luther and Barth, and disapproved of Tillich (who he later comes to appreciate more and more.)  Some of the brightest theological minds of the 20th century are in conversation together as a new generation of younger scholars, like Hall, arise.  And Miller is dear to them all.  That this intimate remembrance has been published as it is almost feels sacred.  I am glad professor Hall took the time to interview so many old friends, to recall so many stories, and to report them in a way that documents so much of it.

Interestingly, Miller was what was called the “Study Secretary” of the SCM organization, tasked with making sure the various student chapters were well informed, invited to always be learning and growing in faith and social issues, engaging well their own setting in institutions of higher education.  He would travel from campus to campus, meeting with professors and churchmen, students and scholars alike. They thought that Christian theology has something to say to, and with, the work being done in modern universities.  Miller called himself a “book steward” for SCM, so much so that he started a bookstore in Toronto for and alongside the work of SCM.  As I’m reading this I’m realizing that it may not be too different than Hearts & Minds, with my former work in campus ministry, still hoping to service and equip, say, the CCO or IVCF and the like. 

I started this book because I admire Hall and thought it would be interesting to hear about how he was mentored; I had no idea a bookseller and a bookstore was involved!  I had no idea that The Messenger chronicles the work of a man committed to bringing books to students, of introducing important ideas to the Christian community, of stimulating the life of the mind.   I read some sections of this memoir two or three times, in fact, astonished at how relevant it seemed to me, although it all happened more than half a century ago.  Later, in the controversial 70s some radical activist students insisted that Bob should carry a different sort of literature (some were, in theologically liberal confusion, considering taking the “C” out of their name.) Miller, although theologically mainstream Protestant, couldn’t abide this immature attack on the faith or his craft; theological book-selling is not a hobby or a process to be determined by popular opinion, by committee or the market.  It was his calling and he and his well-read staff refused to give up the quality of bookstore that they had develope
d as a labour of love (which, by this time, had reached renown throughout Ontario, at least.)  Miller would not be intimidated; a change in the ethos of the times and within SCM created an organization that no longer valued their own book mentor.  It does not end well.

As Bob Miller ages and his relationship to SCM fades, yes, as even SCM itself fades, Hall continues to be blessed by his aging friend.  The story moves to its bittersweet conclusion and a powerful reflection by Hall on God’s grace seen in a life lived for others, through the arts and literature, through ministry and friendship.
9780547424859.jpgThe Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian the Making of a Navy SEAL Eric Greitens (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) $27.00  I wasn’t sure what I’d think of this, since I am a pacifist  and do not appreciate books which glorify war.  Yet, this fine young man–a former Rhodes Scholar–who gave many months and years of his life in voluntary service, in mission trips, in humanitarian projects, seemed to be a guy I wanted to read.  And wow, what a story!  He increasingly came to believe that the largest service to the betterment of the world and the needs of the hurting would be to learn to protect those who are most oppressed.  Here, he tells of his path from being a humanitarian volunteer to a professional Navy Seal.  The book opens with a roadside bombing in Iraq and a moving chapter of his paying his respects to the bereaved family of a deceased comrade.  It is well written but the prose is plainspoken, clear and informative.  From trips to China, Bosnia, Bolivia, he learns of the world’s needs and the world’s poor.  Like many young idealists, he wanted to make a difference; he served in refugee camps from Gaza to Croatia (and yes, he visits Mother Teresa’s home in Calcutta.)  The big question—and it is a question for all of us, perhaps especially those committed to non-violence—how do we prevent violence, save people from becoming refugees in the first place?  This is a boots on the ground memoir about that question, what the policy researchers call “humanitarian intervention” and the “responsibility to protect.

Here is the description from a preview copy that so interested me: “Eric offers something new in the history of military memoirs: a warrior who wanted to be strong to be good, only to discover that he had to be good to be strong.”  Throughout his SEAL training and his subsequent deployments (whew—from Kenya to Thailand, Afghanistan and Iraq) he carries his good heart and lessons learned from his years as a humanitarian.  This is not an intentionally Christian book and it does not wrestle with the questions of Biblical nonviolence, as followers of Jesus surely must.  But for those of us that do–or anyone that wants a powerful story about an obviously noble man–this is hard to put down and offers considerable food for thought.  Greitens is now a senior fellow at the University of Missouri and founder of The Mission Continues, a charity that helps wounded veterans find work back home.

I_Beat_the_Odds.pngI Beat the Odds: From Homelessness to the Blind Side and Beyond  Michael Oher (Gotham Books) $26.00  You know the first book, itself a very well-written and riveting story by Michael Lewis.  You may have seen the movie with Quinton Aaron and Sandra Bollock..  Just a look at the back cover here, with the very blond Leigh Anne Touhys, Michael’s adoptive mother, and the towering player in the jersey from Ole Miss, tells a lot of that incongruous story.  But here you learn Michael’s side of the story, the crushing poverty of his early life in a Memphis ghetto, his darkest memories and feelings, (including the fears of being taken from his broken family) his determination on and off the college field, his Christian faith, and how he came to become a leading NFL player for the Baltimore Ravens.  Co-written with an talented Sport’s Illustrated writer and sports biographer, this is a great book which is eye-opening and truly inspirational.

cover_year_plenty.jpgYear of Plenty  Craig L. Goodwin (SparkHouse) $12.95  All right, I have mentioned this one before, too, but it is such a fun book to have in the summer—just look at that cover!   Who doesn’t like bright plants, flowers, and, uh, chickens.  Well you’ll learn all about it in this delightful, important little book.  In the tradition of Plenty (which we loved and wrote about a year ago) and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (of course) this is the upbeat story of a Presbyterian pastor learning about justice, reading about sustainability and how to pull off a more simple lifestyle, desiring to be a better steward, and writing a book about how he and his family sets out to eat locally, be more responsible for their energy use and diets and such.    It is timely and informative and really pleasurable reading. Here’s the fun subtitle, which doesn’t even tell the half of it: “One Suburban Family, Four Rules, and 365 Days of Homegrown Adventure in Pursuit of Christian Living.” Fantastic!

dressmaker.jpgThe Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe  Gayle Tzemach Lemmon (Harper) 24.99  When one humanitarian development worker says “This is one of the most inspiring books I have ever read” one takes notice. Mohamed El Erian (When Markets Collide) says “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana reads like great fiction and yet it is all true; this book will grab you from the first sentence and take you on an amazing journey that crosses many borders: cultural, geographical, intellectual, and emotional. It is a must read.”  Lemmon spent years doing taxing work obtaining in-depth interviews and learning the texture and details of this Afghani town.  Talk about “unsung heroes” as Angelina Jolie writes of it, “Against all odds, these young women created hope and community; and they never gave up.  This book is guaranteed to move you–and to show you a side of Afghanistan few ever see.”

LAMcover-new-195x300.jpgThe Last American Man  Elizabeth Gilbert (Penguin) $15.00 I hope you know that I don’t agree with the sexual or spiritual worldview of the lovely Ms Gilbert who gave us the spectacularly interesting and spectacularly written Eat Pray Love.  With discernment, it is a fabulous travelogue (a
nd a travelogue of the heart) and disagree with those who mocked it just because it was so popular.  There is a reason it was beloved–it really was well done!  Beth and I both thoroughly enjoyed and learned much from the sequel to that, Committed: A Love Story,  the feisty and fun study on the history and sociology of marriage (written as a memoir to follow up EPL—should she marry her new man, or not?  How does one write a book about one’s love life when, in fact, it is known the world over?) It was really fun reading and almost entirely excellent;  despite a few foolish spots, was mostly very, very wise.  Because I was so enthralled with her writing style I ordered The Last American Man, her American Book Award finalist, a biography of Eustace Conway, “the last man” of the title. Not surprisingly, the writing was colorful (in more ways than one), the story almost unbelievable.  An abused child from North Carolina is taught by his mother to love the woods, to care for all manner of animals, to take books out of the library, learning about older ways of building things, all sorts of Native peoples and becoming skilled at Indian crafts, animal skinning, surviving and actually living in the wild.  He grows up to be one of the most self-sufficient men on the planet, a fascinating and decent fellow who excels at nearly everything he does, and who still lives in a tee pee in the middle of his beloved Appalachian mountains. And, man, does he do some amazing stuff, besides just living off the grid–I can’t begin to tell you.   In the stellar storytelling hands of Ms Gilbert, his life becomes not only a fabulously rich story, but a thought-provoking bit of cultural and social criticism. Outside magazine says  it is “the finest examination of American masculinity and wilderness since Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.”

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One thought on “Summer Memoirs: 15 Fun, True Stories

  1. Wow, a whole post on memoirs – this is better than a hot fudge sundae with whole spanish peanuts! No kidding, I had Craving Grace on my library pile today . . . but they wowuldn’t let me check them out b/c i didn’t have my card (the other branches let me use my DL). Now I want to go back and get it.

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