Hearts & Minds friends,
I’d be sad if you didn’t notice, but we’ve not done a new BookNotes newsletter in a few weeks. There have been stupefying technical aggravations and our computer dude is moving us to a new platform and server, blah, blah, blah. The old BookNotes blog posts are all still archived at the website, our order form page there is still super secure, and we hope that you might support our mail order business now that we’re back in the technical e-saddle. Sorry if there are unforeseen aesthetic glitches, too. It feels like we’re flying without a net here, at times.
As always, we send this out with a prayer for God’s peace and a hope: read for the Kingdom! Thanks.
I hope you enjoyed our last post naming a whole bunch of particularly pleasing non-fiction reads. These were books selected because of their lovely writing or fun style or interesting subject matter. I can’t imagine not liking those books about rock music or Michael Perry’s wonderfully crafted rural essays, but I know even with these entertaining titles, a few of our customers wanted some ideas about fiction.
I’ll admit that it is hard for me to describe what I like in a good novel; what exactly was it that so captured me when I tore through massive stories like The Goldfinch or All the Light We Cannot See or Dan Vyleta’s amazing Smoke which I reviewed last year this time, or the brilliant 500 page The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert? Why does Beth so often recommend the huge 1920’s Norwegian novel Kristen Lavransdatter? Why are some very demanding books — just think of the never-ending Crime and Punishment or the complex James Joyce classic, Ulysses, or rather unusual ones like The Confederacy of Dunces or Infinite Jest — the very ones that fans most passionately defend? But they aren’t all for everyone, I know.
I ask this (what makes a good novel?) not exactly rhetorically. I’m wanting to note that this curiously curated list includes some I just love telling folks about, a few that are important this season that we’ve not yet read ourselves, and a few that we have on sale and wanted to offer at a good discount. A few are older, but most are quite new. So, there is a blend of recommendations here guided by a number of criteria and for various sorts of readers. I won’t say too much about them, but will try to help you decide if they might belong in your hands this summer. Really, there is something for nearly anyone here. Enjoy.
When the Emperor Was Divine Julie Otsuka (Anchor Books) $13.95 I know of a group of clergy that are reading this fairly short novel together so I thought I’d read along from a distance. I experienced it in one long sitting on a sunny Sunday afternoon and was truly, deeply captivated. One reviewer had written that “Otsuka’s novel grabs you with its first sentence and doesn’t release its grip until the last page… Her writing cuts like jagged glass.” It is about a Chinese American woman and her two children who are taken to an internment camp in 1942 – her husband was already taken to a prison, so we learn of him through his letters to the children. I have never read a book so terse and lean in its style, and, in any event, have never read anything on this topic. The reviewer from the Los Angeles Times said When the Emperor Was Divine is “a story that has more power than any other I have read about this time.”
Homegoing Yaa Gyasi (Vintage) $16.00 This has been on my list for a while, and we’re glad it is out in paperback. Although the story starts in a slave market in eighteenth century Ghana, it follows two half-sisters whose lives are so very different, and it shows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations – up through the Jazz Age in Harlem. The Washington Post called it “dazzling, devastating, truly captivating.” NPR said it “brims with compassion… Yaa Gyasi has given rare and heroic voice to the missing and suppressed.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates says “Homegoing is an inspiration.”
Long Way Gone Charles Martin (Thomas Nelson) $15.99 I don’t recall what small publishing house Martin was on when we first discovered his earthy prose years ago, but he has become a big name in inspirational fiction, doing good work usually set in the south. He has become a USA Today best seller and titles like When Crickets Cry and Chasing Fireflies are exceptional. This one is about a musician and singer-songwriter named Cooper O’Connor who “took everything his father held dear” and drove 1,200 miles to Nashville, “his life riding on a six-string guitar and the bold wager that he had talent.” I don’t know if it is fair to compare this to the country-music soap opera Nashville – which we loved, by the way -but it seems like that kind of story. It claims to be a radical retelling of the prodigal son story, taking us from tent revivals to the Ryman Auditorium and the broken relationship between a father and son.
The Angels’ Share James Markert (Thomas Nelson) $15.99 Okay, speaking of guys who write well in the “Christian fiction” world, this new author is on to something pretty amazing. This is a story about an illegal whiskey distillery in Kentucky during the prohibition. And, it is full of mystery, including this: “Some believed he was the second coming of Christ. William wasn’t so sure. But when that drifter was buried next to the family distillery, everything changed.”
Set in Twisted Tree Kentucky. Angels’ Share is said to be a “story of fathers and sons, of young romance, of revenge and redemption, and of the mystery of miracles.” This is southern fiction, and it’s wild. Who doesn’t want to hear about a book described by Julie Cantrell, bestselling historical fiction author of Into the Free, like this:
“Bullets. Gravel. Southern church pews. An illegal distillery and a slew of small town secrets… I’d call that a strong brew.”
FIVE BOOKS BY FREDRIK BACKMAN
My wife swears by these hard-to-put-down, charming stories, heart-warming but not overly sentimental, thoughtful, but not too highbrow, heavy at times, but not devastatingly so. She fell in love with A Man Called Ove and, since it isn’t particularly Christian, or even admirable — Ove is a crusty character, I’m told — she at first was a little reluctant to tell others how she enjoyed the book and appreciated Backman’s style and vision. And then she found other folks, conservative evangelical folks, even, who similarly raved about the stories and how they enjoyed them. Recently, a Christian leader was recommending them in a workshop. So we’re on a roll, now, inviting everyone to consider these engrossing stories.
I will mostly copy what the publishers or other reviewers have said to help you understand the basic plot of each of the five. The descriptions aren’t my words…
“Backman is a masterful writer, his characters familiar yet distinct, flawed yet heroic…There are scenes that bring tears, scenes of gut-wrenching despair, and moments of sly humor….A thoroughly empathetic examination of the fragile human spirit.” —Kirkus Reviews
A Man Called Ove (Washington Square Press) $16.00 I suppose you should start here. I love this quote: “There are characters who amuse us, and stories that touch us. But this character and his story do even more: A Man Called Ove makes us think about who we are and how we want to live our lives. A Man Called Ove seems deceptively simple at the start, yet Frederik Backman packs a lifetime’s worth of hilarity and heartbreak into this novel. Even the most crusty curmudgeon will love Ove!”–Lois Leveen, author of Juliet’s Nurse and The Secrets of Mary Bowse.
Here is how one Booklist reviewer described it:
He’s a curmudgeon–the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?
Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.
A feel-good story in the spirit of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Fredrik Backman’s novel about the angry old man next door is a thoughtful exploration of the profound impact one life has on countless others. “If there was an award for ‘Most Charming Book of the Year, ‘ this first novel by a Swedish blogger-turned-overnight-sensation would win hands down”
Britt Marie Was Here (Washington Square Press) $16.00 Here is how the publisher describes this good story:
Britt-Marie can’t stand mess. A disorganized cutlery drawer ranks high on her list of unforgivable sins. She is not one to judge others–no matter how ill-mannered, unkempt, or morally suspect they might be. It’s just that sometimes people interpret her helpful suggestions as criticisms, which is certainly not her intention.
But hidden inside the socially awkward, fussy busybody is a woman who has more imagination, bigger dreams, and a warmer heart that anyone around her realizes.
When Britt-Marie walks out on her cheating husband and has to fend for herself in the miserable backwater town of Borg–of which the kindest thing one can say is that it has a road going through it–she finds work as the caretaker of a soon-to-be demolished recreation center. The fastidious Britt-Marie soon finds herself being drawn into the daily doings of her fellow citizens, an odd assortment of miscreants, drunkards, layabouts. Most alarming of all, she’s given the impossible task of leading the supremely untalented children’s soccer team to victory. In this small town of misfits, can Britt-Marie find a place where she truly belongs?
Funny and moving, sweet and inspiring, Britt-Marie Was Here celebrates the importance of community and connection in a world that can feel isolating.
And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer: A Novella (Atria) $18.00 This short one is described as “an exquisitely moving portrait of an elderly man’s struggle to hold on to his most precious memories, and his family’s efforts to care for him even as they must find a way to let go.” In the book, the old man asks, as he sits in the square looking at a child, “Isn’t that the best of all life’s ages, an old man thinks as he looks at his grandchild, when a boy is just big enough to know how the world works but still young enough to refuse to accept it.”
Lisa Genova, author of the powerful novel about Alzheimer’s, Still Alice, says,
“I read this beautifully imagined and moving novella in one sitting, utterly wowed, wanting to share it with everyone I know.”
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (Washington Square Press) $16.00 And, here, yet another charming, warm-hearted novel from the author of the New York Times bestseller A Man Called Ove, translated from Norwegian.
Elsa is seven years old and different. Her grandmother is seventy-seven years old and crazy–as in standing-on-the-balcony-firing-paintball-guns-at-strangers crazy. She is also Elsa’s best, and only, friend. At night Elsa takes refuge in her grandmother’s stories, in the Land-of-Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas, where everybody is different and nobody needs to be normal.
When Elsa’s grandmother dies and leaves behind a series of letters apologizing to people she has wronged, Elsa’s greatest adventure begins. Her grandmother’s instructions lead her to an apartment building full of drunks, monsters, attack dogs, and old crones but also to the truth about fairy tales and kingdoms and a grandmother like no other.
Beartown (Atria Books) $26.99 This is the most recent, the eagerly anticipated hefty hardcover. Beth loved it. Here is how the promo copy tells about it:
“People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the workingmen who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.
Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.
Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.”
Meals From Mars: A Parable of Prejudice and Providence Ben Sciacca (Multnomah) $14.99 I held this high in front of 2000 college students last year after we heard challenging messages from hip hop artists and activists, LeCrae, Propaganda, and Sho Baraka. These hip hop stars brought solid Christian conviction about God’s work in the world, about Christ-like reconciliation, and about the need to focus on racial justice (among other things) in our sadly broken culture. At that Jubilee conference we feature mostly non-fiction books and we had shelves and shelves about race, justice, mass incarceration, criminal reform, domestic poverty, and more, but I thought maybe the students would respond to a story. And did they ever -we sold a bunch of these. The story’s plot is fairly simply: a black guy from the ‘hood who is on the run from the police has taken a white guy hostage in his car, and they spend the night driving around, mostly talking. They become honest with one another, truly listening, back and forth, back and forth, trying to figure out this matter of injustice, police violence, urban disadvantage, white privilege, law, order, grace, goodness, and the possibilities of peace and reconciliation. Sho Baraka has an afterward in this book, making it particularly relevant for many of us.
The Reason for Crows: A Story of Kateri Tekakwitha Diane Glancy (Excelsior Editions/SUNY Press) $14.95 This slim book is from the award-winning Native writer Diane Glancy, continuing the project she began in Pushing the Bear: A Novel of the Trail of Tears and Stone Heart: A Novel of Sacajawea, two other equally captivating, short novellas of historical fiction. We received a brand new book of hers in the store the other day (a nonfiction reflection about love) and I was reminded that we wanted to highlight this one. It was inspired by her reading of an old biography of Tekakwitha called Mohawk Saint. The wonderful cover art, by the way, is by CIVA member Mary McCleary.
The Chimera Sequence Elliott Garber (Osprey Press) $15.99 We have lots of best-sellers and well-advertised books in our fiction section, but we enjoy stocking indie presses and some self-published work by friends we admire. Elliott is the son of Steve Garber, one of my best friends (and author of the must-read Fabric of Faithfulness and Visions of Vocation.) Yet, I would suspect that Elliott wants this book to be known for its own merits, not just because his dad is a good writer (and his mom is a librarian.) Well, it is deserving – one New York Times action/adventure writer, Maria Goodavage, says “I couldn’t put down Garber’s engaging, rapid-paced, action-packed thriller.”
The New York Times author Dr. Marty Becker (known as “America’s Veterinarian”) says, “Not since Jurassic Park has a science thriller of this magnitude been written…
Holy smokes, what an accolade!
Elliott Garber is a veterinarian himself and a military officer currently on active duty with a special operations command. He has lived in India, Egypt, Mozambique and Italy and he has traveled to over 50 other countries, including a recent deployment to Iraq. You see, he is a highly-trained veterinarian who works with animals for the military all over the world – and so, he knows much about how diseases are carried in the animal populations. In this novel, there is a humanitarian aid hospital in war-torn central Africa which diagnoses a very dangerous disease in humans that is also killing endangered mountain gorillas nearby. The Chimera Sequence quickly becomes a thriller of international scope, moving from a cargo ship in Sudan’s largest port to a Lebanese restaurant in DC and beyond. It’s tracking a “looming global menace” and the story becomes what one reviewer called “a thrill ride” of a story.
The Psalms of Israel Jones Ed Davis (Vandalia Press) $16.99 I don’t know how we discovered this rare story about “secrets and snakes, rock and gospel, guilt and grace”but I’m glad we did. It’s published by an imprint of the West Virginia University Press which does some stellar Appalachian fiction.
Maybe I read a review by Lee Abott who wrote:
I love this book, not least for the zillion writers and religious thinkers I find in it, among them Dickens, Melville, Jonathan Edwards, Increase Mather, Jimmy Swaggart, and Walker Percy. The plot is straight out of On the Road with the same moral risk and ambiguities and the prose is rich.
Imagine Me Gone Adam Haslett (Back Bay Books) $15.99 This came to our attention when it was long listed for the National Book Award (we try to stock most National Book Award winners.)
One reviewer, Peter Carey, says it is “literature of the very highest order.” But I’ll admit — don’t say you’ve never done this — I was attracted mostly by the cover. Just the tip of that house? The missing letters? And, when reviews come in like the ones below, aren’t you intrigued?
“Superb… Haslett is one of the country’s most talented writers.” Wall Street Journal
“The novel’s most rewarding surprise is its heart.” The New York Times Book Review
Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale Ian Morgan Cron (Zondervan) $16.99 Since we listed a new Ian Cron book in our earlier, fun non-fiction list (his recent co-authored book on the Enneagram, The Way Back to You) I figured I’d remind you now about his older novel. It offers a great premise – a disillusioned pastor of a megachurch heads to Assisi to renew his faith. (His name is Chase, by the way.) In Italy he goes on a pilgrimage re-tracing the steps of St. Francis, meets up with some simple Franciscan friars, and, well, you can imagine what happens when he returns home, wanting his church to live into this sort of simple, radical faith. You know Cron is funny and full of pathos (his memoir Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir of Sorts is an all-time favorite and will make you laugh and probably cry!) This fiction story is full of spiritual hunger and a bit of history and a yearning for hope. Not every book carries blurbs on the back from writers as diverse as Rachel Held Evans, Eric Metaxas, Fr. Richard Rohr, Mako Fujimura, Rowan Williams, and Shauna Niequist. This shows just how widely it is respected and how many folks have really enjoyed it. Don’t miss it (no matter what Enneagram number you’ve got.)
Incorporation Will Willimon (Cascade) $29.00 Speaking of books about the troubles and possible revitalization of churches, who better to try his hand at writing a church novel poking at our modern foibles than born storyteller and world-renowned theologian, preacher, and former United Methodist Bishop, William Willimon? This story is about Hope Church (its colorful clergy and its people, of course). But, well, from the title you might guess this is a feisty dig at the crowd-pleasing, worldly businessy approach to church. Michael Malone (himself a great novelist) says “Imagine a contemporary variation on Trollope’s Barchester Towers, set in a small American town with a big church.” You’ll find plenty of real human messes here, even what the back cover calls “ungodly shenanigans” which includes drunkenness, adultery, even criminal malfeasance. This is quite a story, entertaining, witty, blunt, by an author who is quite aware of the irony of it all. Will there be a final accounting? Is there a God around?
The River Why David James Duncan (Sierra Club Books) $14.99//new edition $15.99 If we’ve talked about fiction, together, ever, I am sure you know that this remains one of the most memorable stories I’ve ever read. It is wonderfully funny, oddball, full of truly great writing, including some beautiful glimpses of nature, and a well-rendered encounter with God, one of the best I’ve ever read. The book is about fishing — both fly fishing for trout and worm fishing for bass — and, well, two differing visions of the meaning of life. I’m not kidding; it is about fishing and the search for the meaning of life.
Publishers Weekly called it “A veritable epic… moving, rhapsodic in its intensity.” You’ve got to read it — please!! Beth and I agree that this is an author we most love telling people about. Let us know what you think.
The Brothers K David James Duncan (Dial Press) $18.00 If The River Why is my favorite David Duncan book, it is my wife’s opinion that this, Duncan’s second novel, about a family of baseball-playing boys, set during the painful Viet Nam war era, is even better. I think that many readers agree, but everybody agrees that you should read both of these extraordinary novels. If you like baseball, you’ve got to get this (it is better than Owen Meany, which itself is grand and exceptional.) Is this a homage to The Brother’s Karamazov? You tell me. Many reviewers have waxed eloquent about the meaning of this great story and we very highly recommend it.
Sun House (Little Brown) TBA This is what we think will be the name of the long-awaited book coming from Duncan… or so the New York Times announced late last year. We have been waiting decades for this, literally. He has some memoiristic ecological rants, a collection of short stories that we stock, and he continues to write and teach and speak, but we haven’t seen a new book in ages, let alone the long-awaited third novel. I swear, this book has been anticipated more than any novel I can think of in our 30-some years of bookselling. At least we know the title. We heard it was to be out this fall, but, alas, no word yet. Pre-order it from us now if you’ve been waiting. Unless you already did in, like 1998 or so. If you haven’t, get The River Why and The Brothers K and be prepared to enjoy two wonderfully quirky, moving, well-conceived, unforgettable novels.
Silence Shusaku Endo (Picador) $16.00 Maybe not light fare for happy beach reading, Silence is one of the most acclaimed novels of the late 20th century, the basis for the epic and much-discussed film by Martin Scorsese. (Scorsese has a very moving new foreword to this “Picador Modern Classics” edition.) Although we have carried it for years, our own tribe has come to love this in the last year or so in part because of the remarkable book about it by our artist friend Makoto Fujimura, whose own faith was kindled when he read Silence during a study trip to Japan. (Mr. Fujimura’s award-winning book about it is called Silence and Beauty:Hidden Faith Born of Suffering and is itself very, very, highly recommended.) The point of the Endo novel is complex, but its basic plot is simple: it is about the persecution of seventeenth century Portuguese Jesuit missionaries and their Christian converts who are brutally tortured for their faith. Why does God seem silent amidst their suffering? This powerful story of “enduring faith in dangerous times” is considered one of the finest novels every to come out of Japan.
The Abbey: A Story of Discovery James Martin, SJ (HarperOne) $14.99 I hope you know Father Martin, a popular Catholic writer who has done books on all sorts of theological topics, from a wonderful book about Jesus to one called My Life with the Saints to a really great book about humor.) His newest is a short and sensible one called Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. That is very nicely done, and short, btw. We are fond of Martin and his many good books.
As far as we know, The Abbey is Fr. Martin’s only novel and it is now out in paperback. The fabulous author Ron Hansen (his Mariette in Ecstasy is amazing!) said it is “a sheer delight – funny, engaging, deep, and moving.” Memoirist and poet Mary Karr loved it (“a triumph from one of our best writers working like a master in a new form.”) And Brendan Walsh happily called it “unputdownable.” So there ya go — give it a try.
Thirteen Reasons Why Jay Asher (Razor Bill) $10.99 We’ve stocked this since it came out, and gave a brief overview of it a few years ago in a list of books for older teens. Kirkus called it “brilliant and mesmerizing” and YA dramatist Ellen Hopkins says it is “a book that you can’t get out of your mind.” Now here’s the thing: since it was turned into a very graphic Netflix show, it has become an even larger cultural phenomenon, certainly one of the most talked-about and fiercely debated shows of the year. I was asked by a local TV commentator to comment on the show, which we have not seen, so I couldn’t comment on it, although I hear it is graphic.. I do realize that it shows some truly awful stuff. The book itself is harsh and hard – you know it is about a set of tapes sent to 13 high school classmates by a student who took her own life; the tapes outline their crimes of bullying or betrayal or apathy in the face of sexual violence, in effect blaming them for her despair. This is eerie and suspenseful and well-crafted and necessarily disturbing. If you know any troubled youth today, you should read this.
When Girls Became Lions Valerie Gin & Jo Kadlecek (When Girls Became Lions) $14.99 We have touted this from time to time and wish it were better known… independently published, it is very well done and a lot of fun. One of the co-authors is a legendary women’s soccer coach, her co-author a former athlete who mostly makes her living as a writer. Together they’ve given us a great story about women’s collegiate sports, starting with a rag tag group of girls playing soccer in 1983 and what happens when 25 years later a coach learns about their small-town, mid-Western championship. This really shows the impact of Title IX and the “triumphs and struggles of women in sports.” There aren’t many books like this, so well done about women’s sports, and think it would make a great gift to any teen or college athlete you fan you know.
The Writing Desk Rachel Hauck (Zondervan) $15.99 This is intriguing, entertaining stuff within the genre of “Christian fiction” — that is, mostly inspirational stories published by evangelical publishing houses. Hauck has become a New York Times bestselling author (she is known for a moving trio of novels called The Wedding Dress, The Wedding Chapel, and The Wedding Shop.) I thought some of our customers will like this not only because of the wholesome tone but because it is about writing and publishing. It uses a creative device – Tenley Roth’s first book was a runaway bestseller, but she is “locked in fear” as her deadline for the second book approaches. She is “weighted with writer’s block.”
And soon enough, you discover another story about another woman writer who wrote at the same desk with hopes and fears of her own. Born during the Gilded Age, Birdie Shehorn wants to tell stories, write novels, make an impact on the world. The dramatic back cover copy tells us “Tenley and Birdie are from two very different worlds, but fate has bound them together in a way time cannot erase.”
A Land Without Sin Paula Huston (Slant) $27.00 Slant is a classy imprint created for thoughtful fiction by Gregory Wolfe of the Image Journal. (The latest from Slant is a serious hardcover called Death Comes for the Deconstructionist by the wonderfully thoughtful Daniel Taylor. It is, by the way, on the surface, a crime novel about the murder of, get this, a postmodern literary critic – yep, a real deconstructionist. ) Slant’s Land Without Sin came out about five years ago and at that time I named it as my favorite novel of the year, as I recall. It was named by Publishers Weekly, in fact, as one of the “Best Summer Books” of 2013. It is a grand and important story, set among aid workers in Central America, struggling with revolution and liberation theology, inviting us into exciting plots with (as one novelist wrote) “the depth of soulful inquiry of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. WE HAVE THIS AT A SPECIAL SALE OF $10.00 OFF. Our sale price is just $17.00 — while supplies last.
In the Absence of God Richard L. Cleary (Xulon Press) $24.99
Bridging the Abyss Richard L. Cleary (Xulon Press) $15.99
I have mentioned both of these apologetic thrillers from time to time and we’ve had Mr. Cleary — he is called Dick by his friends — to the store to present on both of these books. They always create good conversations and a lot of fun. Dick is nearly a neighbor here in Dallastown and was one of the earliest supporters of our bookstore and is one of my best friends. He is a former high school football coach, the former head of the science department at our local DAHS, currently a college philosophy professor, a Lutheran church-school teacher, avid birdwatcher, and a great husband, dad, grandfather, and near constant conversation partner with me, on everything from bio-ethics to intelligent design to the ethics of war and peace to the complexities of contemporary politics. I say all this to remind you that we really are blessed when we get to support a local author who is so supportive of our store, and whose work we respect. In these two novels, Dick is doing what C.S. Lewis recommended — stealing past watchful dragons, as the Oxford don put it — by using a good story to raise huge questions about ethics, philosophy, and finally, the question of the meaning of life without a caring creator God.
The first book, The Absence of God, is pure Cleary. The story revolves around discussions (personal, among relationships, and also in public forums) that happen on a college campus, with questions about whether or not we can say something is truly “wrong” without any transcendent truth on which to base any such claims. One character in the book wants to insist there is no religious truth, but yet wants to opine about all mattes of things such as war and global warming and racism. Well, how do we know something is wrong, if there is no God? Who says so? There is much philosophical and scientific conversations among the characters in this book and for those that enjoy listening in to a good feisty dialogue, the characters here — in between sports and a crime on campus and some personal problems among the staff, including a trip to see an aging parent in Baltimore — really go at it. I think Cleary would hope that, besides an interesting story, readers of the book might clarify what they believe and why they believe it, learn to debate well, and even be prepared to raise important questions in their own real-world conversations. This fun story can help you learn the art of apologetics, especially around questions of ethics and law and truth.
In the second book, Bridging the Abyss, a character or two from the first book show up, and in that sense it is somewhat of a sequel. But for this one, Cleary pulled out the stops and decided to have a more developed plot, more interesting character development, and a lot more action. This is a suspenseful read, fast paced, dramatic, with some degree of violence, with kidnapping, ransoms, rogue black ops, and more. I think when it came out I said there was little offensive for those that watch Breaking Bad or any number of popular shows like Criminal Minds. But here’s the thing: again, Mr. Cleary the college teacher, the Christian apologist, the rational thinker, wants to use this plot as a device to get at this big question: again, can we really know something to be good and true, or ugly and wrong, without basing it on some outside revelation by a God who is Supreme? Is Dostoevsky correct when he said that if there is no God, anything is permissible? And, how do we come alongside those who don’t believe in God, but feel the human sadness when there is tragedy, especially if they have no point of reference for finding meaning in all their sorrows? We all live in this world, such as it is, with the yearning for the good, the true, the beautiful, and more. Can even the rough stuff explored in this suspenseful crime novel help us learn how to bear witness to a worldview that provides reasons for these very things? The Absence of God may be a bit deeper than some may want, but Bridging the Abyss with its contemporary issues of crime and fear and the seeking of resolution, just may be the way to enter more deeply into these questions of truth and questions of ultimate meaning.
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats Jan-Philipp Sendker (Other Press) $15.95 Just holding this new paperback makes me want to start the story – it is an international best-seller, set in Burma. There is Eastern mysticism, romantic encounters, deep mystery. It has gotten some great reviews, but I can’t quite say more. We are very excited to stock it here at the shop.
Caroline Leavitt (author of Pictures of You) says of this much discussed novel,
“No matter what I even attempt to say, I can’t possibly capture the absolute magic of this book. Like a spell, it haunts. Like love, it’s going to endure.”
Jesus Cloned William Hagenbuch (Archway Publishing) $28.99 Well, didn’t I say we sometimes like to carry some uncommon books that you may not have heard of elsewhere? Hagenbuch is a colorful UCC pastor with a MDiv from Boston University’s School of Theology. He’s a first time novelist with a big passion for telling this story, which is too complex and dare I say wild to explain simply, here. The short version is that nineteen-year-old Joe O’Dell is about to learn he is not who he thinks he is. Granted this is fantastical but it has to do with, among other things, a creepy Orphan Black type organization which has some two-thousand-year-old DNA that may be…. wait for it… from the body of Jesus Christ!
There are twists and turns and subplots, but the big question this brave story dares to host is one about the very nature of Jesus. I suppose many of our theological readers know about the hypostatic union and all that “fully God and fully man” talk from the Nicene Creed. Yep. There’s that. And, as it says on the back cover, “Through their losses and gains, Joe and those closest to him reveal to themselves – and all of us -how far God’s love reaches, and how much that love heals.” This is a large, sprawling story by an interesting, progressive pastor who wants to raise important questions about God, Jesus, incarnation, and about life and grace and redemption. WE HAVE A LIMITED SUPPLY THAT WE WILL SELL FOR $10.00 OFF while supplies last. SALE PRICE = $18.99
A Second Baptism of Albert Simmel Rodney Clapp (Cascade Books) $19.99 I don’t know if you recall the books from maybe a decade or so ago that we raved about by Rodney Clapp, back when he was working at IVP and did the exceptional, and still important Families at the Crossroads: Beyond Traditional and Modern Options, or when he became a founding editor of the significant Brazos Press imprint, now affiliated with Baker Books. He did some books on pop culture, is known for knowing much about the blues, and he did a wonderful book about being fully human and finding God’s presence in the ordinary called Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels. Mr.Clapp did a good book on Johnny Cash (or is it really about the contradictions at the heart of American culture?) We still stock all of these. Anyway, he has a novel, now, recently published by his latest employer, Wipf & Stock publishing.
What’s it about? Well, it seems sort of dystopian, with a “sub” person who, well… just get a load of this:
Then comes shocking news that changes his life and leads him on a journey across what is now called Old America. Along the way he will encounter a buffalo stampede, attacks of bandits and pirates, the violent practices of a scape-goating religion, the so-called meta-Indians, the last movie in a gentle small town, and a host of colorful characters. Throughout his arduous travels he intriguingly ruminates on the riches–and challenges–of a life of faith. At once science fiction, a western, a comedy, a love story, and a novel of ideas, The Second Baptism of Albert Simmel is filled with suspense and vivid scenes, and takes the reader on an unforgettable journey.
Once in a Blue Moon: A Novel Vickie Covington (John F. Blair Publishing) $26.95 Speaking of Southern fiction writers and folks who have been around the horn a bit, we respect Vickie Covington so much. We discovered her – as so many did – firstly in Salvation on Sand Mountain, the amazing non-fiction book about snake handling in Appalachia that her eloquent husband at the time, Dennis Covington, wrote about their involvement first reporting on, and then becoming friends with, a weird West Virginia Pentecostal church. She went on to co-author the stunning book about their marriage difficulties, Cleaving. She has written essays and novels, and, as far as I know, this is the first book she has done in a long while. There is a vibrant and fun blurb on the back by the indefatigable Fanny Flagg who says Ms. Covington is “one of the most gifted and talented writers of the New South.” Mark Childress (author of Crazy in Alabama) says, “This is a lovely book, full of delight and real feeling. I can’t think of another quite like it.” If you want to enter Southside Birmingham for a spell, joining her “community of lost souls who find each other in a season when hope and change seem like real possibilities” – that’s an allusion to the time period in which Once in a Blue Moon is set, right after Obama’s first election victory — this could be a wonderful read for you or your book club. It’s the kind of book that is getting buzz in indie stores that curate special selections that maybe don’t come up readily in the dumb amazon algorithms or bestsellers lists. You heard about it here!
Camino Island John Grisham (Doubleday) $28.95 I don’t have to say much about this other than that it is wonderful to be able to highlight a book by a Baptist Sunday School teacher who is known and beloved in both popular best-selling book selling venues (from airports to discount chains) and in thoughtful literary circles, for being a fine writer, a good storyteller, and a decent man. Would that all authors had such a personal reputation for being serious about their art but also for their integrity and charm. Further, it’s fun to tell about books about books and writers, and this one is not a legal thriller, but a book about an author and his writer’s block. Well, there’s a heist of some exceptional books from Princeton and a rare books dealer, too. In it, Grisham reveals some of his own issues, his own tricks of the writing trade, and channels some of his own advice to aspiring writers to his stuck, stuck character. This is selling well throughout the country, and we’re happy to offer it as well.
Spark: The Firebrand Chronicles Book One J.M. Hackman (Love2ReadLove2Write Publishing ) $14.99 I am really, really happy to tell you about this for at least three big reasons. Firstly, I’m happy to admit, the author is a cousin of mine, and we watched her grow up, crossing paths at family reunions, weddings, funerals, and such. She’s a devout and serious Christian in a small town evangelical church and her degree in writing is from a very impressive department in a respected college. So, there’s that: our family is really proud of her, and, gee, it isn’t every day we get to tout a published volume by a family member. So cheers! We hope you consider giving it a try.
Besides, Ms. Hackman is a thoughtful gal, a good mom, and has been working away at her craft for years. She’s got a chapter in a remarkable anthology of speculative fiction and has dabbled in some historical fiction. This, her first major work, is a YA novel, fun and upbeat, accessible, but with some hints of some very serious thought behind the fantasy plot. I respect those writers who keep at it, writing, blogging, developing their fan base. She is increasingly known in the world of wholesome YA stuff, and other fantasy writers have said fabulous stuff about this first volume of a planned trilogy. The series will become known as “The Firebrand Chronicles” and you’ll learn why early in Spark. The next one is going to be called Flare and you’ll be awaiting it like her other big fans.
And here is the third reason, besides being related, and that she’s a hardworking, up-and-coming author that is earning respect among fellow writers and YA fiction readers – and about this I just have to be honest: I don’t read much fantasy stuff at all and although we’re fond of the YA genre, we don’t read as much as we’d like. Beth adored all the splendid Harry Potter books, of course, but I’m still stuck on my beloved early books by Katherine Paterson and Gary Paulson and Gary Schmidt and Lois Lowry. I realize I’ve limited myself, but my favorite fantasy novels are by Madeline L’Engle and, of course, The Chronicles of Narnia. The only thing we read more to our kids growing up, I suppose, were the exquisite and highly recommended Little House books.
And so, when I was immediately taken with this book, I was surprised. It’s written in a funny sort of cadence and slang, like a cheery, smart teen girl with some attitude might really talk. It’s hilarious, actually, and Brenna’s got lots of good chutzpah. The opening sequence where’s she’s a normal kid in school and fire starts blazing from her fingers, and then she finds a portal – yeah, like, they are a thing – well, I was hooked. Who know this could be so much fun! Here’s what I had the privilege of saying on the inside cover:
As a bookseller who reads bunches of books, I have rarely been so captured by an alternative reality fantasy as I was from the very first page of this marvelous new book. I was smitten with Brenna, the snarky, confident, sixteen year old who exhibits wit and grace (and fire – you’ll see.) You will love this fun story crafted by a great writer who chooses wonderful words and colorful phrases, sometimes with stunning results. As the drama unfolds, you will learn why Hackman started Spark with the apt line from C.S. Lewis that there are no ordinary people. Wow.
This Heavy Silence (Paraclete Press) $14.95 Well, I hope you know – hear this now if you haven’t yet heard it – we have stocked all the books by Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry that we can, and we had a selection of his nonfiction, fiction, and poems, the day we opened 34 years ago. But I didn’t know his novels well until a customer pressed into my hands our own store’s copy of The Memory of Old Jack twenty-five or more years ago. Of course everybody loves Berry’s lovely, slow, deeply wise Jayber Crow and it remains one of my all-time favorite novels. However, Beth and I both agree that we liked Hannah Coulter even better!
Well, we say all this for the record, but also because of this: there are other authors who have written about rural life with care and conscientious prose, there are other stories about farming, and other novels about loyalty to a place that are deeply spiritual without being preachy or pushy, and Nicole Mozzarella’s wonderfully rendered This Heavy Silence is one of them. It got a coveted starred review from Library Journal and Christianity Today awarded it the “Debut Novel of the Year” in 2006 when it was released in hardback. We’re glad to remind you of this “mesmerizing portrait of betrayal, forgiveness, and the mysteries of grace” that unfold in about a decade of life in the rural Midwest as a woman struggles to raise a troubled child and keep the spring-fed beauty of her family farm. Yes, yes, read Wendell Berry, all of his novels and short stories, and the rest. But read other novels of rural life, too. And this one is beautiful. It would make a great book to enjoy this summer, or, in fact, this coming fall harvest season.
The Underground Railroad: A Novel Colson Whitehead (Doubleday) $26.95 I don’t have to say much about this, and cannot, as none of us here have read it yet. It has been on our radar since it first came out, when it garnered some stunning reviews, and then when it won any number of important awards last spring. It received the National Book Award, which is further indication of its significance in the publishing landscape. Colson Whitehead is a prizewinning and best-selling author and his story of a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South has been called “a magnificent tour de force.” It was an Oprah’s Book Club selection for 2016; you can see why when you read blurbs like these:
A potent, almost hallucinatory novel… It possesses the chilling matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift…He has told a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present.
–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
Far and away the most anticipated literary novel of the year, The Underground Railroad marks a new triumph for Whitehead…A book that resonates with deep emotional timbre. The Underground Railroad reanimates the slave narrative, disrupts our settled sense of the past and stretches the ligaments of history right into our own era…The canon of essential novels about America’s peculiar institution just grew by one.
–Ron Charles, Washington Post
Stunning reviews appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and on NPR and People and more. I have to ask myself: what am I waiting for? You too? This is one of the most praised and popular novels of the last few years.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness Arundhati Roy (Knopf) $28.95 Again, this is one we are very proud to tell you we have, one of many on our “new fiction” display. This author is legendary for her exquisite prose and her remarkable memoirs and essays. I am not sure it is fair to call her an activist, but she has been outspoken about human rights and the things that matter much in our world. I hope you know her name (and her most awarded novel The God of Small Things.) As Junot Diaz (whose book I reviewed a year ago) says, “If you want to know the world behind our corporate-sponsored dreamscapes, you read writers like Arundhati Roy. She shows you what’s really going on.”
This new one (her first novel in 20 years) is an epic story about.. well, literary fiction of this caliber isn’t “about” one thing. But the plot seems to revolve around a romance, in the context of war and peace in India as it “takes us on an intimate journey of many years across the Indian subcontinent – from the cramped neighborhoods of Old Delhi and the roads of the new city to the mountains and valleys of Kashmir and beyond, where war is peace and peace is war.”
One reviewer noted that “it is an aching love story and a decisive remonstration, a story told in a whisper, in a shout, through unsentimental tears and sometimes with a bitter laugh.” USA Today called it “fiercely unforgettable” and Slate called it “deeply rewarding.” I have hardly read more interesting reviews of any book in a long while — it is called “stunning” “fearless” “a great tempest” “compelling” “ambitious” “a masterpiece” “musical” “humane” “powerful and moving” “glorious” “lustrously braided” “gorgeously wrought” “a work of extraordinary intricacy and grace” and “the unmissable literary event of the summer.” I sort of wonder how many other Christian bookstores carry it, and how many church-based book clubs would take up such a complex and ambitious book?
Man Who Met God in a Bar: The Gospel According to Marvin Robert Farrar Capon (Mockingbird) $16.99 I alluded to this one in that previous blog as I was so glad that Mockingbird brought out another rare one of Capon’s — a book of sort-of-fiction, a set of feisty conversations between two characters that were essentially alter egos for the late Father Capon and his wife, Valerie. That book of discussions between Pietro and Madeleine, More Theology and Less Heavy Cream, is a sequel to the previously published Light Theology and More Heavy Cream that were firstly published as installments in the Christian satire journal, the late great Wittenberg Door. So I mentioned those in that post, and will announce this one, now.
Capon was a prolific writer, theologian, film reviewer, New York Times food critic and is most known for his deep, extraordinary theology-of-food/leg of lamb recipe book, Supper of the Lamb. Okay, that said: this newly released Marvin one is another of the previously unreleased works of Capon that was written later in his life, and recently offered to Mockingbird by Valerie Capon. It is wonderful to see this slim novel in print offered somewhat as a companion to their fabulously fun …and Less Heavy Cream.
What’s it about, you ask? After explaining this colorful Episcopal foodie priest, this storytelling, movie-loving, recipe-making theologian, you really need details? Just buy the thing and go along for the ride. You’ll have a blast and your spirit will be uplifted and you’ll delight in the word-smithing, you’ll learn something about the goodness of life, the weirdness of our times, and the beauty of grace. What a joy, having this rare little novel with its brand new cover.
Behold The Dreamers Imbolo Mbue (Random House) $17.00 I’m glad this is now out in paperback and that it is a honored selection of the Oprah’s Book Club for this year. My-oh-my, we need novels like this, storytellers that through the power of a well told tale allow us to glimpse into another’s life, see things from a different angle, have our hearts touched. We become more empathetic, I’m sure of it, by reading well, and reading this kind of story — about marriage, immigration, and the lives of a young couple from Cameroon, living in New York City. I am sure you will be a better citizen, a better neighbor, a better Christian by entering into the worlds of others like this. Take it up with your book group and see what happens. And let us know how it goes!
Freedom’s Ring Heidi Chiavaroli (Tyndale) $14.99 There are so many inspirational novels within the “Christian fiction” genre and although we stock more than most stores, my own imagination isn’t captured by most. Yes, we have Amish stories and faith-based historical romances. Some are truly a blessing to readers, and some authors have their devoted fans. But every now and then a writer comes along within that sub-culture that perhaps deserves to be known more widely. This looks like a fascinating bit of historical fiction, a clever and curious device, connection Boston in 2015 when the Boston Marathon bombing put an entire city on edge and Boston 1770 when the Boston Massacre sparked the American Revolution. In Freedom’s Ring, Heidi Chiavaroli weaves together the past and present, starting with the grief of a runner Annie David and her wounded niece, and a colonial woman named Liberty Caldwell, whose brother was killed in the deadly fray. It is a love story as well, “women’s fiction”, they say, which “haunts and heals long after the last page.”
The Widow Nash Jamie Harrison (Counterpoint) $26.00 Counterpoint is a smallish, literate publisher (known for doing many of Wendel Berry’s books, so you know they are people of integrity.) This novel is curious, serious, said to be “deliciously ambitious” and written with “technicolor, vibrant prose.” Known for memorable characters and unexpected adventure, it is an ambitious story. There is history, here, but more: in fact, it could be considered a feminist take on the classic Western. Or, perhaps, it enters this historical period to offer “a compelling novel of reinvention and the seismic sacrifices we make for difficult family.” Carl Hiaasen loves the widow Nash in The Widow Nash, and says “this shining book is flat-out terrific.”
Do Not Become Alarmed: A Novel Maile Meloy (Riverhead) $27.00 This publishing imprint is respected for doing often exquisite books of well-written fiction and non-fiction, and this author has been lauded by The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, and other such outlets (for both her adult and middle grade novels.) She has that rare ability to be a fine and fun storyteller, with a thoughtful, literate streak. Helen Fielding of Bridget Jone’s Diary fame says, “Here is that perfect combination of a luminous writer and a big, page-turning story.”
But I’ll admit, even though I am attracted to the theme of being responsible to keep another safe, it was this endorsement that drew me in and made us just have to stock it, from novelist, bookstore owner, and book lover extraordinaire, Ann Patchett:
This is the book that every reader longs for: smart and thrilling and impossible to put down. Read it once at breakneck speed to find out what happens next, and then read it slowly to marvel at the perfect prose and the masterwork of a plot. It is an alarmingly good novel.
Beren and Luthien J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, with illustrations by Alan Lee (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) $30.00 Okay, for some, we’ve saved the best for last. Just in, this is, yes, an early book not previously released by Tolkien, but one whose story serious Middle Earthers will recognize.
Here is what they say about it:
“The tale of Beren and Luthien was, or became, an essential element in the evolution of The Silmarillion, the myths and legends of the First Age of the world conceived by J.R.R. Tolkien. Returning from France and the Battle of the Somme at the end of 1916, he wrote the tale in the following year.
Essential to the story, and never changed, is the fate that shadowed the love of Beren and Luthien: for Beren was a mortal man, but Luthien was an immortal Elf… [her father was a great Elvish lord, who imposed on Beren an impossible task in order to prove his worth to wed Luthien.] This is the kernel of the legend, and it leads to the supremely heroic attempt of Beren and Luthien together to rob the greatest of all evil beings, Melkor, called Morgoth, the Black Enemy, of a Silmaril.
In this book, Christopher Tolkien has attempted to extract the story of Beren and Luthien from the comprehensive work in which it was embedded, but that story was itself changing as it developed new associations within the larger history. To show something of the process whereby this “Great Tale” of Middle-earth evolved over the years, he has told the story in his father’s own words by giving, first, its original form, and then passages in prose and verse from later texts that illustrate the narrative as it changed. Presented together for the first time, they reveal aspects of the story, both in event and in narrative immediacy, that were afterward lost.”
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