FOUR FANTASTIC BOOKS FOR EARLY FEBRUARY — Donald Miller, Wendell Berry, Makoto Fujimura, Dallas Willard

We are so happy to be able to tell you about these four books, each brand new, each written with its own sort of elegance and integrity, each profound and good, by authors we respect. We want to commend them to you, all four, even. These are great gifts for us all, and we have them at 20% off for BookNotes readers and friends. (We show the regular retail price but will calculate and deduct the discount when you order.) Just use the link to the order form shown below — or give us a phone call, if you’d rather. The order form page at our Hearts & Minds website is secure, so you can safely leave your information. Or, just ask us to send a bill and we’ll happily do so.  We thank you for your support.  Happy reading.

Scary Close- Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy.jpgScary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy  Donald Miller (Nelson) $19.99  I mentioned this new hardback in our last post, the one about the Turansky/Miller parenting books. It seemed to fit, since it includes some very good advice about parenting; this memoir is a lovely story about relationships, the arc of which is mostly about the popular Gen X author of Blue Like Jazz learning to be more authentic and develop skills and habits that would allow him to be more intimate and connected. Yes, it is mostly a love story — Miller gets engaged and the book tells of his courtship, the ups and downs along the way (and there were some, believe you me.) I really want to remind you how good this is. It’s a good sign when I can’t stop telling Beth about a book I’ve finished — we obviously read a lot, and much of our skimming and studying we don’t have to share with one another much. Scary Close, though, is one I just have to keep talking about. She has now started it, but I’ve read some out aloud to her already. It’s that kind of a book. 

There are memorable episodes here (some funny, some stupid, some tragic, some amazingly curious) and good stories and some understated points and a few jokes. There are a few Biblical insights, but the book isn’t heavy-handedly religious. There are remarkable mentors that come alongside Donald to help him learn how to be real, how not to be so codependent, how not to be so much of a control freak. Wonderful folks like Mark Foreman, parent of the frontmen of Switchfoot, teach him about family love, about grace and resisting shame, about marriage and parenting. He tells about these conversations he has and they are all interesting. (This is one observation, almost a criticism, though, just a small one, something I experience sometimes when reading these kinds of books: I wonder what kind of lucky people have the very best leaders in the country come alongside them, be their friend, take them to dinner, give them support and advice? After the fifth or sixth really famous person gives Donald good advice I had to — we’re being honest, here, right? — roll my eyes and get a little jealous. Okay, so you probably are more mature than me and it surely won’t ruin the reading or the learning or the fun. But I had to say it. I do my own bit of namedropping, I know, but it is usually authors I saw or maybe briefly met, not those who come over for drinks and take me under their wing and offer tons of free advice.)

These other voices and good conversations maybe don’t make the book sound that appealing or fascinating, but it really, really is.  When Miller talks about Bob Goff or that guy who wrote The Shack or “To Write Love On Her Arms” Jamie Tworkowski or describes his stint at a rehab kind of place, or cites psychologist Henry Cloud, it really does bring good insight. These people who figure into the story are some of the most remarkable people he knows, and of course he’s going to ask them their secret for good marriages and good families and a healthy approach to career and calling. And it does make the book fun — he’s off at a retreat one minute, writing his next book the next, meeting with a TV star who just had twins the next, and, while planning a wedding with his remarkable bride to be, in pops a person at just the right time to give sage advise or a shoulder to cry on.  And it is really valuable advice. And there really is some reason to cry.  This is, after all, very serious stuff; it is his life!  And yours!

Miller is a brand name in hipster evangelical circles, speaks on the coolest circuit and knows a lot of edgy, engaged people. He lived in Portland, for Pete’s sake. He has a soundtrack on-line to listen to along with the book; I doubt if Harper Lee will do that. And he owns a branding business, helping corporations tell a better story, and they rent houses to meet in when throwing splashy conferences. Of course he does. But that hip, upscale lifestyle aside, I love this guy, and love his vulnerability and his simple truths that he well learned. As it asks on the back, “in an age when we all act as our own publicity agents, would he be willing to impress fewer people to honestly connect with more?” (We all act as our own publicity agents? What an odd thing to accuse us all of — again, this is his world, I guess, a bit bohemian, artistic, entrepreneurial. I don’t know how many people really think they need a publicity agent; most people I know think I’m weird because I’m on twitter.) But there it is: can this guy who created this image as an author, speaker, social media player (etcetera) tone it down, learn to be more local, real, honest, and truly connect with people who love him?

Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy is a memoir, and it’s Miller’s story, from his guy point of view. If you like the way this literary autobiographical genre gives you a glimpse into an unfolding life, then you will like this book — get it on you stack right away. At times, you know, good memoirs feel like a novel, and although this would be a slow, quiet one, it is captivating, truly a tale I couldn’t put down.

More than his other books, this is almost like a self-help book. He teaches in it, in his low key way, and he is teaching important stuff about relating well to others, about being a servant, about letting go of ego and control, of dropping the act, as he puts it. He fesses up to being a manipulator and tells us how to resolve the performance anxiety, at least a bit.  

Throughout, he helpfully quotes and explains good authors (Harville Hendrix, Viktor Frankl) and useful books like Safe People and Marley and Me.  (Okay, maybe Marly isn’t all that useful, really, but it’s wonderful, and he draws from it nicely. Not to mention the great movie We Have a Pope.

There are a few pages that approach the proverbial psychobabble — did he really not know about co-dependency when he first learned it at the OnSite Workshop and their “centered living” program? Still, this is true, good material, and it touched a pretty deep place in me. Most of us have our issues, regret and sorrow, gladness and joy, foibles and frustrations. Talking about it — especially for a guy who has written about his lack of a father and the hard stuff of his early childhood — is scary. But it’s the hard work we are called to, to be real, to be vulnerable, to be ourselves, our truest selves. It is a journey Donald is on, now with his lovely wife and her strong network of deep friendships and extended family, into which he has so graciously been grafted. He is a better man for it, and you will be a better person for having listened in to his simple story. 

You’ll be thrilled to hear how the wedding at the end of ScaryClose turned out — Betsy miller wedding.jpgconvinced him they could fix up a deteriorated part of a neglected old country club where she had fond and important childhood memories and, of course, it soon began to take shape. Donald’s wry comment that “it’s funny how a good story can start to remodel a place” — was quintessential and a wonderful, potent summary of the work of restoration he and she are committed to.  By the way, they offer stunningly beautiful wedding pictures at their ScaryClose website, too — although you shouldn’t look at them until after you’ve read the book. I couldn’t even see the hose in the gothic fountain, giving the impression it worked.

I was kind of jealous of that great wedding story and those pictures, too, by the way. 

Truly, this is that kind of a book, a wondrous tale of a life being slowly turned around, about fresh starts and new capacities and the holy grace of deep connection and down-to-Earth hope. It will make you want in on it all.  That is what a good memoir can do.  Enjoy and learn!

our only world wendell berry.jpgOur Only World: Ten Essays Wendell Berry (Counterpoint) $24.00  I suppose it is a tad incongruous to list the decidedly unhip Mr. Wendell Berry from rural Kentucky right after talking about this psychologically driven story about needing to learn how to fine intimacy and trust by the jazzter brander Donald Miller, formerly of urbane Portlandia.  But there you have it, the diverse stuff we have here at the shop, and the diverse books we truly are excited about. It would be a blast to get to send out one of each, eh?  

It is a good season when there is a new book by Mr. Berry, considered by many to be, as Edward Abbey puts it bluntly, “The best serious essayist now at work in the United States.” And there is a bit of a connection, too, to the Miller memoir, or so it seems to me.  Neither writer is glitzy or affectatious or breathy, even. They are calm, plain-spoken, deliberate. Miller is cooler and funnier, but both are interested in what is genuine. Both are willing to ask hard questions. If Donald “searching for God knows what” Miller appeals at least to young Christians eager to shed dogmatic fundamentalism, but still live into a solid, good, restorative, grace-filled story, Berry tells us, deeply, how to really think about that, rooted in profound, prophetic gospel. Granted, Miller may be best known in magazines like Relevant and Berry may be known in The Nation or The Atlantic, both are skilled writers who work hard to offer important essays and healing ways to live in a mixed up modern world. As the Washington Post has written, “Berry’s words shine with the gentle wisdom of a craftsman who has thought deeply about the paradoxical strangeness and wonders of life.” 

This collection, not unlike his many others, include previously published pieces, in sources such as Harpers and The Christian Century.  One was from Farming.  One is the transcript of an acceptance speech of a prestigious literary prize given in Dayton Ohio. You get the picture. The theme, again,  not very much unlike other collections, revolves around how our human economy does or doesn’t fit with the economy of nature — between economy and ecology.  He again talks about “forms and functions.”  He laments that we do not know our place; we are filled with hubris.  “This misfitting has been dangerous and damaging” he insists, and a consequence of not just pride, but of our inappropriate thinking, our unimaginative perceptions of the ways of the natural order, and of our idolatries of the industrial/technological era which disregard creational norms.


Some say Berry is like an Old Testament prophet, and — poets that most of them were (and at least one was a “farmer from Takoa”) — I am inclined to agree. Even though he at times speaks clearly as a Christian, his warnings are most often couched for all to hear, with plainspoken common sense (another similarity with the new Donald Miller book which seems to be written for a wider, more general audience then the typical religious book buyers.) For instance, Mr. Berry writes, “It is anyhow clear that if we are to do better, we will have to recognize the old mistake as a mistake: no more euphemism such as “creative destruction,” no more “sacrificing” of a present good for “great good in the future.” We will have to repudiate the too-simple industrial standards and replace them with the comprehensive standard of ecological health, realizing that this standard involves necessarily the humane obligation of neighborliness both to other humans and to other creatures.”

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Berry is an agrarian, a populist, an advocate for faith-based creation care, and he wants us to “submit” to limits and the requirements for a just use of things and places.  He is a philosopher and a farmer, an environmental activist, and a heckuva good writer. I hope you know his novels and short stories, at least the wonderful, wonderful Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter. His beloved Mad Famer poem is now out in a small, inexpensive paperback — you should have that for repeated reading or reciting. I hope you know his essays.  

This new anthology of recent pieces look to be as fine as any, a handy place to start, a timely and challenging set of morally serious reflections, about life and times, about war and peace, and citizenship and the public good, about land and God and love. He is as specific as writing about the much-debated planks of The Farm Bill or being “caught in the middle” in his views of being pro-life regarding abortion, or a rumination on a walk through a particular forest and as broad as asking how we ought to best understand notions such as freedom.  He is right, you know: this is our only world. Our Only World: Ten Essays well help us care for and protect this beautiful place into which God placed us.

Culture-Care-Makoto-Fujimura-300x300.jpgCulture Care: Connecting with Beauty for Our Common Life Makoyo Fujimura (Fujimura Institute) $25.00  Once again, we are very, very proud to be able to suggest an extraordinary book, another example of the rich and wonderful volumes that are available these days.  Not mass marketed, but produced in-house by the famous abstract painter’s organization, Culture Care is designed as a paperback with French folded covers, and a thin, but durable onionskin cover, giving it a dusty, translucent look. There is a full color reproduction of apainting, Ki-Seki, (that was first done in 2014 with mineral pigments, Sumi ink, silver, and gold, on Kumohada paper) which further enhances this indie-press release. It is a lovely book, unique and good. 

This written content of this fine book clearly holds together as Fujimura develops his call for us to care more deeply for culture, and about how to be more generative as those who want to conserve and develop the cultural potentials within our society. He is a good lecturer and has often spoken about his work as a lavish painter — maybe you’ve glimpsed him in the stunning portion of the For the Life of the World DVD that we’ve promoted, on “beholding” — and he has spoken more generally, as he has written, about culture, social concerns, peacemaking, how to offer a winsome witness in a postmodern world, and why people of faith should be engaged in supporting artists of all sorts. He opposes culture warring and he opposes stubborn ideology and pragmatism. He resists all manner of propaganda. And he builds a generous, positive case, chapter by chapter, for a better way to contribute to care of the culture in which we are to thrive.

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However, this book could also be read as collection of essays, almost dipping in as the spirit leads, reading his insights here or there about “soul care” or “leadership from the margins” or about business or vocabulary or the inspired essay about the gospel-singer Mahalia Jackson’s role, reminding Martin Luther King Jr to “tell ’em about the dream” during the famous March on Washington. You have to see the short but powerful list of “what if” near the end. If you have read Mako’s splendid, and also handsomely designed book Refractions or have subscribed to his on-line newsletter through his IAM (International Arts Movement) you will know of his eloquence and subtle grace as a thinker.  This book is not unlike those.

We are very, very honored to be one of the bookstores carrying this new release, and suggest that is well worth owning, worth repeated reading, and a healthy, important contribution to what it means to be generative, to be of service to the common good, and how we can be “custodians of culture care.” 

Listen to Mako’s overview, from the lovely and provocative preface:

Culture Care, though a thesis I have developed, is a movement already afoot in culture in various circles. In one sense, this book is not new or unique; International Arts Movement and the Fujumura Institute are part of a whole ecosystem of a greater movement. But having acknowledged that, this is a book that addresses head-on a terrible rift in our society: our culture is broken and needs care to be restored to wholeness. Like the “Creation Care” movement that looks after the environment, and the “Soul Care” concepts provided by practitioners in mental health and spiritual growth, this book on Culture Care lays out a necessary conceptual framework and the beginnings of practical responses to repair that rift. This is a book meant to inspire individuals and to inform the wider movement in providing such care.

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Surely, Mako — and many others — are right about how urgent this is. Poetry and the arts in general and “generative thinking” (as he puts it) “are critical for our society to begin a shift away from our corrosive cultural battles.” His book is both manifesto and starting guide, for artists, citizens, anyone taken with the high calling of culture-making.

By the way, we also stock the little pocket-sized and quite handsome booklet called On Becoming Generative: An Introduction to Culture Care (which is the first chapter of the larger book, Culture Care.) It is also published by the Fujimura Institute and sells for just $5.99. It would make a nice small gift or conversation starter.

allure of gentleness.jpgThe Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus Dallas Willard (HarperOne) $26.99 This brand new book from the late Dallas Willard, philosopher, theologian, and spiritual guide, arrived today and it seems to be a perfect addition to the above trio of excellent titles. It makes the case, as you can see, that although the Christian faith is reasonable, and we can learn the art of thoughtful apologetics, the heart of winsome witness is — what a phrase! — “the allure of gentleness.”  (It reminds me of the phrase which became an early book of Brennan Manning, the “wisdom of accepted tenderness.”) 

I like Eugene Peterson’s comments, here: “I grew up in a Christian culture in which ‘defending the faith’ was carried out by using the Bible as a weapon. Anyone who challenged my faith was treated as an enemy. As an adult I discovered Dallas Willard. Unfailingly gentle and respectful, he transformed the apologetics of my generation as many of us “laid down our swords and shields.”  It is lovely to learn of another voice that is intellectually rigorous and yet humble. (Again, it was Francis Schaeffer who called love, after all, “the final apologetic.”)  

J.P. Moreland says,

I have never seen a book remotely like this. It was Willard’s habit to take an issue and cast it in a light that no one had thought of before; time after time, he does this here with key apologetical issues. And because he places apologetics against the backdrop of pastoral care, it makes it a practice everyone who loves people should master.  This is essential reading.


Of course we all need help understanding, and then sharing with our friends, neighbors, students, children, or curious colleagues, the best Biblical answers for questions about hell, the problem of evil, the nature of freedom, God’s relationship with Israel, God’s intentions for human history, the ways to know, and such. Mostly, though, the “wonder of Jesus.”  And we must do that by embodying, nurturing, the character of Jesus, which Willard describes as gentleness.  And certainly we need humility. I think it is fascinating that in one chapter he explains that we even need to refine our ideas in the process of living them out.  That is, our ideas are shaped by our discipleship; the Spirit reveals more as we are conformed more to the ways of Christ. 

Can the Christian faith — including the robust theology and philosophically-aware answers to tough questions reflected on here — really meet our deepest desires? Can we not only argue about truth, but show a gentle, even beautiful way of living? Can we show that our apologetics include this humble journey, these practices of “living and acting” with God?  I think this book looks just wonderful, accessible, covering tons of topics, and offering an impressive and even playful approach of that appeals to the head and the heart (and the hands!)  Rejoice!



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