In our last, heart-felt BookNotes I highlighted several good chapters and a book by our very dear friend Leslie Bustard, who is now, as her bereaved but hopeful husband Ned, put it, “on mercy’s shores.” One brand new book, Why We Create (published by Square Halo Books, where Leslie was intimately involved) included a new piece by Leslie on how having cancer made her more attentive, more grateful, and more generative. It was a wonderful chapter and that it was released to the book buying world just days before her death seemed somehow — what? — I can hardly find the word. Appropriate. Blessed, maybe. So I wrote about it, gladly, if through my own tears.
It was a blessed thing, too, that many wrote to me, noting their concern and interest in this marvelous Lancaster-based woman. Her family was happy to hear that, and it was meaningful for Beth and me and our staff here. Thanks for caring. (You can read her obituary, here.)
This fascination with a good story of a good writer inspired me to finish up a BookNotes post I’d been working on the previous week about memoirs, mostly memoirs about folks going through loss or other painful, complicated stuff. I’ve read a few stellar ones these last few weeks, and am in the middle of two others. If I remind you of a few I raved about a few months ago, I’ve got a nice compilation of 10 great stories. As I often say, the best-written memoirs are almost as imaginative and surely as enjoyable as a fine novel.
Please allow me to tell you about these — all announced here at 20% off. If they aren’t your cup of tea, no worries, although I am sure many will love hearing about these.
To order just scroll to the bottom of the column and click on the “order” link which takes you to our secure order form page at the Hearts & Minds website.
Lessons and Carols: A Meditation on Recovery John West (Eerdmans) $25.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $20.00
I start with this one but want to say it may be the most demanding of reads on this good list. It is, doubtlessly and assuredly, very well written. The author, John West, has himself been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and this memoir is poetic, nuanced, at times allusive, even, at times, staggeringly perplexing. And yet, it is one of the most brilliant bits of creative writing I have come across in a long, long time. It is clearly in a genre that transcends the categories of autobiography, even the category of memoir, and into sheer literature. Of a ragged, raw sort.
Indeed, one reviewer noted his “sensitivity and wild intelligence” suggesting he “enters a psychic and emotional netherworld.” It is gentle and reflective and and extraordinary achievement.
The title of the book comes from the loose format — if one can call it that — of being arranged around the traditional Anglican Christmas service of stories and songs; it is, admittedly, genre-bending, as the flyleaf promises.
Maybe redemption is not a place you find, but a system of mapmaking. Sketch a land. Pencil in dragons. Imagine it real, resplendent, and broken under a waxing moon.
Some of the story, as the subtitle promises, explores “the aftershocks” of alcoholism. That is true. Also, the author struggled with mental illness, and the anguish of that — told through “a fresh look at the powers of poetry, ritual, and community” is gripping.
Mark Wunderlich notes that West,
…moves among the shades of addiction, the fog of confusion, to emerge changed, connected to life and to love and to art…. Lessons and Carols is not a conventional story of adversity overcome, but the narrative of the author’s commitment to the making of a soul.
The “ritual” and “community” that is alluded to is a routine of gathering friends to read and sing the “lessons and carols” service — sometimes with what seems like a degree of camp, sometimes with flamboyant earnestness, even though, in some years, the participants are all atheists, or trying to be. The book isn’t only or even mostly about these yearly enactments, but they anchor the narrative a bit. West was young and wild and sexually active, when he started this yearly gathering; later, through much of the narrative, he is a struggling new parent. It’s been many years since I held my own newborns, but, geesh, this evoked some feelings about that. And more.
Very impressive literary figures have endorsed this set of episodes — Mark Wunderlick, Megan Maynhew Bergman, and the always wise Sven Birkerts. But listen to this assessment by James K.A. Smith, editor of Image and author of, most recently, How to Inhabit Time. Jamie writes:
In poetic prose of spare, searing beauty, John West helps us see Christmas as another name for the human condition. These haunted, humane meditations are at once elegy and hymn, psalms of ascent and lament. West finds possibilities for language that birth possibilities for how to be. A singular book.
Where the Waves Turn Back: A Forty Day Pilgrimage Along the California Coast Tyson Motsenbocker (Worthy Publishing) $27.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $21.60
This book, quite simply, drew me in, caught me up short, made me think, made me laugh, and blew me away as I was struck by the unique style of prose (and the fabulous story.) I had felt this before (if rarely) and it struck me; maybe he’s a modern day Holden Caulfield, or at least a hip, artistic writer with an J. D Salinger vibe. Maybe I’m misreading, but I think the last time I felt like this was reading the first book by Donald Miller, and then, later, reading his second, mega-seller, Blue Like Jazz. Donald doesn’t write like that any more and I’ve not found anybody to replace that iconic space in the edgy-cool, post-evangelical world of faith and doubt and journey and discovery. Rachel Held Evans came close at times — I loved her searching story Searching for Sunday — but Miller, and certainly Motsenbocker, have a lot of attitude. And, yet, Motsenbocker’s attitude, when it isn’t exuding wide-eyed wonder at this strange and beautiful world, is, mostly, humble. Honest, raw, and humble.
He is open to everybody and everything and, even though this is a road-trip / hiking story of loss and doubt, he is generous and guileless, almost zen-like. He is not jaded, even if he is bitter.
The short version of the remarkable book is that his artsy, eccentric, Christian mom died (in her mid-50s) when Tyson, a rising singer-songwriter (on the circuit, opening for Switchfoot and doing sold out shows, gathering acclaim from Americana critics and NPR), was in his early 20s. Days after the funeral he takes up his mom’s enigmatic challenge to “do something irresponsible” and sets off to hike from San Diego to San Francisco. And like Kerouac, just like that, he’s on the road. Walking with bad sneakers and even worse knees, ill-prepared, carrying a film canister hosting her ashes.
The book follows his sometimes dramatic journey — part pilgrimage, part walkabout, part irresponsible, romantic gesture to honor his mom — on the Camino Real trail, created (and now nearly forgotten) by the controversial Father Junipero Serra. Everybody in California knows of this eighteenth-century monk who “dedicated his life to the idea that tragedy and suffering are portals to renewal” and created a series of still-standing adobe missions throughout the state. We learn just a bit about this Franciscan missionary (who came, we have to admit, as part of the repressive colonization of the abusive Spanish Empire) and we learn a lot about the geography of California. Each chapter in Where the Waves Turned Back has the name of a town or place as its main title, towns many of us have at least heard of, from Capistrano to Ventura to Santa Barbara to Big Sur. I couldn’t put it down.
Tyson has a great eye for detail and he vividly and earnestly tells of his explorations of run-down barrios, blue-collar, working-class harbor towns, smoggy industrial ports, busy superhighways, and multi-million dollar coastal estates which, further North, gives way to scenic vistas, bad weather, and incredible forests. He seems to be able to have good conversations with everyone, including cops and railway workers, Marine-base guards, hapless surfer dudes, folks who live in homeless encampments, not to mention other hobos and hikers and a fair share of diner waitresses, bar-tenders, and baristas. He connects with a few old friends along the way (and his well-told stories of these encounters are unforgettable) and he stops in a few sports bars to watch his beloved Seattle football team; his conversations along the way are reported in an often staccato way, he said, she said, I said. It works strikingly in a light-hearted way, funny, even, until he hits you with the punchline that is often much more than bravado, offering something approaching profound.
He has this way, pondering even the most mundane thing which gets him thinking about this or that, and then again wondering how things really are, rejecting truisms of American culture. He’s got an artist’s temperament and it is captivating, perhaps especial for those readers who are more conventionally logical and left-brained.
Where the Waves Turn Back is gloriously written when he describes the flora and fauna of the coast, the glories of the sky, the sea, the wind, the rain. As one who has done a few weeks of this sort of thing — hitchhiking from Pittsburgh to the West Coast and home again, back in the day — I only wish I had such gorgeously articulated memories of the changing scenery and Motsenbocker’s capacity for friendly conversations along the way. This book rings true, and the big, big backstory — a smart young man’s searching for a renewed faith and a healing from the loss of his mother — is not only entertaining, but important. It certainly captures the style and approach of a certain sort of young adult writer, a socially conscious, melancholy guy caught maybe between Coupland-esque Gen X searching and Millennial hope.
Another part of the story is how he weaves together — as if it is floating in his own memory as he walks and walks, with time to think — stories of his past, especially his time in war-town Haiti as a child; his parents were medical missionaries there until they were evacuated by the UN. His awareness of a toxic sort of religion, too, comes up, and his move away from simplistic fundamentalism is assumed. He has a good heart, though, a gracious attitude, child-like, at times. What a character he is!
I do not mean to be cheap or pretentious to say that this book could very well be this generation’s Blue Like Jazz. I hope the right crowd discovers it, the sorts of bohemian readers who would appreciate his wit and stream-of-consciousness ponderings, his non-dogmatic worldview. Where the Waves… has more cussing in it than Blue but the questioning of pat answers is similar; the honest and unashamed open-mindedness goes beyond the general evangelical orthodoxy of Mr. Miller’s books. This spiritual memoir, based on his own frank and colorful on-the-road journals, will — as the flyleaf rightly promises — be a “thrilling and deeply satisfying read that asks questions that will resonate with readers seeking meaning in an utterly disorienting age.”
“One of the truly beautiful and terrible things about being human,” he says, “is our capacity to sense the gap between what is and what should be.”
My copy is loaded with little post-it notes marking sections I’d want to cite if this were a longer review, noting pages to read out loud if I had the chance to tell about it in detail. Like most books there are a few lines that left me scratching my head, but whole paragraphs are artfully quotable (and, again, many are glorious, and some are lots of fun) So much is so well done, in this unique style. I want to start over and read it again.
For now, though, listen to these two great blurbs, who each capture something right about this moving story:
Where the Waves Turn Back is a mash-up of things that don’t always go together: it’s heartbreaking and funny, honest about doubts even as it’s deeply hopeful, beautifully written and addictively readable. I’m so glad Tyson went on this wonderfully irresponsible journey, and I’m glad he wrote about it so we could, too. I loved this book. — Andrew Peterson, sing-songwriter and author of The Wingfeather Saga and Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making
With the curiosity of a traveler, the lyricism of a songwriter, and the hard-won wisdom of a griever, Motsenbocker brings us on a journey of honest reflection and healing. Stark, gritty, and authentic, Motsenbocker’s words sweep readers up into a story as varied and vast as the landscape he describes. This book will be a gift to anyone who has know the pain of loss and the joy of hope rediscovered. — Amanda Held Opelt, author of A Whole in the World.
If you are a fan of indie-rock, new folk stuff, you should listen to his several EPs and full-lenth albums (like his pal David Bazon, on Tooth & Nail, by the way.) 2016’s Letters to Lost Loves is about his coming to terms with the death of his mother and alludes, at times, to his epic pilgrimage, written about now in this new book. Check it out. I’m a fan.
Blood from a Stone: A Memoir of How Win Brought Me Back from the Dead Adam McHugh (IVP) $20.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $16.00
I wrote about this before and on more than one occasion tried to convince BookNotes readers to buy this book. (Heck, I even wrote to Tyson Motsenbocker about it, as it seemed somehow connected to his own California journey.)
Blood From a Stone is not the first book by accomplished writer Adam McHugh. He did the well-known and much-appreciated Introverts in Church and then a book which the complicated writing of which gets mentioned in Blood from a Stone, The Listening Life. This, though, is artistically much more creatively written than the other two excellent ones and it is both much more sad and much more funny. And, in a stretch for this reliably evangelical publisher, he cusses his way through doubts, depression, and deconstruction. It is a work of art unlike many I’ve read lately.
Like the young and spunky artist Tyson Motsenbocker, McHugh spends much of this book traveling around the middle of The Golden State. While Tyson is on pilgrimage and swigging water (and when he stops at a bar, beer or espresso) McHugh, as the subtitle says, finds his drink of choice to be the Biblical fruit of the vine. I don’t know what I liked more about this riveting book — the viniculture history, his own story away from pastoral ministry to a job in the wine industry, or his gloriously-written and utterly fascinating studies of Cali culture and the state’s bloody political history (including the mixed-bag influence of the intrepid Father Serro Juniper.)
In any case, Blood from a Stone is, as McHugh puts it, “the story of how wine brought me back from the dead….a corkscrewing tale of how I got to Santa Ynez, eventually, and the questions that came up along the way.” That’s putting it mildly. It is a story told with warmth and wit, though, and a great, great read. He is without a doubt a gifted storyteller.
A sparkling delight, laced with deep and earthy emotion, but ultimately finished with notes of hope and love. — Alissa Wilkinson, author of Salty: Lessons on Eating, Drinking, and Living from Revolutionary Women
Shattered: A Son Picks Up the Pieces of His Father’s Rage Arthur Boers (Eerdmans) $22.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $18.39
I have been waiting to get a hold of this book for months; I have been on the edge of my seat wanting to read it and — of course — tell you, dear readers, about it. I say this for a couple of important reasons.
I believe Arthur Boers is one of the great, wise, working pastors and Christian thinkers writing today. He was mentored, in part, by Eugene Peterson and although we have never met, we have so many interlocking relationships and interesting connections and I’ve read his work and recommended it over the years that I feel like I know him. I bet some of you do, too. I would read any book he did and when I heard he was working on a very personal, intimate memoir, I shuddered. With a working title like Shattered you can imagine that it is not going to be light-hearted.
Secondly, besides the fact that I’d recommend anything Boers does — he is one of those small handful of authors who I trust and appreciate and want to read no matter what he is writing about. — I have heard that this long-awaited memoir, particularly, is exceptionally well written. Unlike his other books of solid, provocative prose, this is said to be a work of art. It is a literary memoir, a spiritual story told in elegant, movingly crafted words.
To back me up on this, in case you may wonder, the forward by Andre Dubus III, the famous novelist and essayist, who writes (in the exceedingly impressive foreword),
Yet this is not simply the impressive work of a pastor who can write really well. It is also a glorious expression of what Arthur Boers has also been for his entire adult life: a writer.
After which Mr. Dubus cites William James and Tobias Wolfe – not bad company for Arthur to be in, eh?
All of our memories are a reaching for the shards of the past experience, a gathering of the fragments that may, in time, make a more meaningful and ultimately more restorative whole.
Indeed, this is one of the reasons, I think, that I find well considered memoirs to be so very rewarding to read; perhaps, for me, more formative than fiction, as important as novels are. Such memoirs help us construe life in a new way — towards that “restorative whole.” In any event, the gathering of fragments is a theme within Shattered, not just in the horrific scene where a glass is shattered, which his pious father violently threw…
Glass itself, too, is a bit of a theme, Boer’s Dutch Calvinist immigrant father in Canada ran a greenhouse design business. Cutting one’s hands in this dangerous work was not uncommon and such danger becomes a working metaphor for much of his own development as son, young adult, pastor, writer.
I mentioned that Eugene Peterson was an intellectual and spiritual mentor to Arthur. One sees that in books such as the brilliant Servants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership or even his Alban Institute monograph Never Call Them Jerks about healthy pastoral responses to difficult behavior among parishioners. One of Boer’s most beloved books — well written with a bit of a memoirist feel — is The Way Is Made By Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago, one of my favorites of many El Camino books. (That one, by the way, carries a beautiful forward by Peterson and a great back-cover blurb by Marva Dawn, who herself would not have been able to hike the trail herself, but thrilled to read about it in Boer’s reliable storytelling.)
The other person who Shattered is dedicated to, alongside Peterson, is Henri Nouwen, who with others, even, “became as fathers for me.” Re-reading the dedicated after the grueling story of his abusive father, is poignant, if understated. You have to be touched by a line like that.
There is much to be said about this book which will surely be on many year-end “best of” lists. It is a different story than last year’s moving Where the Light Fell, the personal memoir by Philip Yancey, but it will be seen as similar, I suppose. It, perhaps like Yancey (if not more so) draws a complex and even tender picture of many of the main characters in this unflinching story. He does not attempt to justify or even minimize the male rage and abuse in this narrative, but it is not bitter. It is a remarkably graceful story, a story of beauty and goodness.
Listen to his friend (and fellow author of considerable writerly gifts), Winn Collier, biographer of Eugene Peterson and author of A Burning in My Bones:
It’s not all that uncommon these days to find a story told with unflinching honesty. But to find a story that’s also wise and tender and honors the complexity of every person, even those who’ve harmed us, even ourselves — now that’s a feat. And when the person who’s putting the words to paper truly knows the craft of writing as the alchemy of art and grace, well, then we have a book to cherish. Shattered is a book you’ll cherish.
And read and ponder this lovely endorsement from reader (and writer) extraordinary, Lauren Winner, who illustrates not only the beauty and grace of this well-done memoir, but how reading such a book can inspire us to consider anew things in our own lives and relationships”
This brave and wonderful book made me feel gratitude, care, and something like quiet awe. And it made me think–about generational inheritance, about the ways violence lingers, about forgiveness, and, most abidingly, about my own dead mother. I think of her, and of myself unto her, differently now that I’ve read Shattered.
Sistering: The Art of Holding Close and Letting Go Jessica Dickey and Danielle Neff (Pilgrim Press) $14.95 OUR SALE PRICE = $11.96
Oh my, don’t underestimate the power and beauty of this compact paperback from a religious publishing house (Pilgrim Press, one of the oldest publishing enterprises in the country, is owned by the United Church of Christ.) This little book is co-written by a pair of sisters, one of whom works in Los Angeles and New York in the TV biz and the other remained true to her central Pennsylvania roots and is a local UCC pastor. Both are obviously lovely, artful, morally serious people, even if it is laugh-out-loud funny at times. It is, an access who is also a sister says, “a stark-naked love letter to the magic of knowing and being known — to the sisterhood of art and holiness.”
Well. That’s a lot for a short book of back-and-forth memories by some central Pennsylvania gals. But, as Carol Lee Flinders (who wrote Enduring Grace, a classic biography of seven women mystics) puts it,
Like a timeless ballad sung in perfect two-part harmony, Sistering is an absolute delight and unlike anything I think I’ve ever read.
It has all of the warmth and momentum of a great love story and at the same time raises searching, serious questions about love itself — raises them, though, in the context of a richly and sometimes hilariously narrated family history.
Trigger warning (and spoiler alert): there are two chapters, one by Jessica and one by Danielle, which tell of Dani’s rape as a 19 year old college student and how they both reacted. These sisters were tight and even now they are able to reflect on their responses to this gross injustice and its traumatic aftermath.
These gals are remarkably self-reflective, have great memories, and can swear like sailors in the vivid telling of teenage high-jinx and broken hearts, body changes and family drama, current callings and dreams of growing old as sisters. As one actor put it, reading this “put a lump in my throat, a smile on my face.”
All My Knotted-Up Life: A Memoir Beth Moore (Tyndale) $27.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.39
If I’m making a list of the best-written, most captivating and engaging memoirs I’ve read recently, I have to mention, again, this page-turner of a blessing, the honest life story of the famous Bible teaching lady, Beth Moore. A Southern Baptist until not too long ago, she writes very well, inviting us into her life story, and into very deep and broken places in her heart. It’s a read I will long cherish and which we very highly recommend.
Like others in this list it shares some hard stuff. She experienced anguish and brokenness worse than most and struggled to be faithful to God the whole way through; in this aspect, her well-crafted story fits with the others here that expose deep sadness in the life of the writers. True to form, though, this one — even in the very hard stuff she shares about very personal matters of faith and marriage and illness and abuse — is upbeat and truly inspiring.
Please read my previous review at this BookNotes column, here. And then order a bunch for your book club. It’s fantastic.
Evangelical Anxiety: A Memoir Charles Marsh (HarperOne) $27.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.39
Oh my, I’ve got to list this one again, a book that I raved about and promoted a bit on social media. I respect Marsh a lot, and really appreciate his ability as a writer to tell a personal story that is so very much set in a certain cultural and social and even theological milieu.
As you may know, he was raised amidst racial terror in the South — his dad, a Southern Baptist pastor, maybe somewhat quietly, but bravely, stood against KKK leaders in his small town. This had, shall we say, repercussions.
On the bright side, it motivated Charles to write several very important books about the civil rights era, such as a historical study of the use of the Bible in the opposing groups, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Oxford University Press), an unforgettable memoir of his dad’s struggle (The Last Days: A Son’s Story Of Sin And Segregation At The Dawn Of A New South) and a few about social justice and Christian faith, such as the fabulous one he co-wrote with John Perkins, Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community.
Marsh is also known as a Bonhoeffer scholar. I hope you saw our recent little BookNotes review of the fascinating Resisting the Bonhoeffer Brand: A Life Reconsidered which essentially is Marsh’s rebuttal to some German critics of his best-selling Bonhoeffer bio, Strange Glory.
As the above shows, Marsh is a thoughtful Christian who is intentionally involved in the world around him; he is a teacher at UVA and a scholar of Christian activism. And yet, through it all — we learn in Evangelical Anxiety — he has been in both serious psychotherapy and on medication for anxiety attacks and other mental health issues, perhaps revolving around the strictness of his fundamentalist upbringing. From sexuality to race, from dogmatism in theology to consumeristic trends in contemporary worship, he has seen much and experienced it in his own unique ways. His book chronicles this journey, this struggle, this path of discipleship that is honest and vivid and, at times painful. What a book.
Dinah Miller an author who has written about being a psychiatrist (Shrink Rap), says it is “beautifully choreographed” offering “lyrical prose that dances as he recounts a tormenting anxiety disorder.” Calvin University philosopher James K.A. Smith (also editor of the arts journal, Image) says it is “a bold, beautiful memoir.”Another reviewer notes that it “examines Christianity’s fraught relationship to the erotic…”
Darcey Steinke continues,
From the kudzu-strangled landscapes of his Deep South childhood to the spiritual salves of literary novels to the theological integrity of psychoanalysis, Evangelical Anxiety is as transgressive as it is vibrant
Please read my longer BookNotes review here.
Our Hearts Are Restless: The Art of Spiritual Memoir Richard Lischer (Oxford University Press) $34.95 OUR SALE PRICE = $27.96
This big book —over 375 pages counting the index — is one I have yet to start, but my copy is close by. I can’t wait, really. In case you don’t know his work, and why he is so perfect for this kind of book about the art of spiritual memoir, let me remind you a bit:
I so admire Richard Lischer, who first became a literary hero for me when he wrote in 2001, I think, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery. The memoir of his first small-town pastorate — compared a bit to Garrison Keillor, the patron Saint of Lutheran storytellers — portrayed in rich detail the trials and joys of the young pastor’s first parish in rural Illinois. There still are not enough small town pastoral stories, so this is enduring. Later he wrote the gut-wrenching memoir of the years in which his adult son died, Stations of the Heart: Parting with a Son. I adored his book on preaching (the Yale Beecher lectures, given in years after 9-11, amidst the War on Terror, published by Eerdmans) called The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence; I read it maybe three times, wanting to believe in the power of preaching, the power of words. I reviewed at BookNotes his 2021 collection of sermons called Just Tell the Truth: A Call to Faith, Hope, and Courage.
In some circles, Dr. Lischer, a distinguished professor at Duke University, is best known for his exceptional volume on the preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr. First written in the 1990s, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America was updated with an expanded edition reissued in 2020. It combines the art of biography, his insights about being a pastor, and his expertise in homiletics and the power of words. Indeed.
Which brings us to the recent and magisterial-looking volume taking the title from the well-known line from Augustine who is said to have written the first modern memoir, a reflective telling of the author’s interior life.
Here is what they promise in this remarkable volume:
(It is) a guided tour of spiritual autobiography that grants readers new insights into and appreciation of the genre.
In this big book Richard Lischer examines the life writings of twenty-one figures from Thomas Merton to James Baldwin, from Julian of Norwich to Emily Dickinson (and even the outrageously lovely Anne Lamott and the equally edgy work of urban pastor Heidi Neumark.) He explores the “uncertainty principle” in John Bunyan and he has a great chapter on Etsy Hillesum. He calls his chapter on C.S. Lewis “Surprised by Death.” I can’t wait to read his bit on illness and healing based on the memoir of Reynolds Price, who I suspect he knew personally. The chapter I will start with first, though, is about the work of a favorite writer of several favorite books, Dennis Covington. Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain is one of the most amazing books I have read in my life. What will Lischer see and what will he say?
Lischer is a perceptive reader and an engaging guide. I’m sure this will be a very rewarding, serious, perhaps quietly life-changing read.
A Living Remedy: A Memoir Nicole Chung (Ecco) $29.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $23.99
Oh my, this is a book that has so captivated me, I can’t stop thinking or talking about it. I’ve ordered her previous one, and can’t wait. I can’t quite say what it is that makes this so very compelling, but it has moved me deeply. It is a lovely story, nicely written. One LA Times reviewer said she “hit it out of the park.”
Not an overtly religious book, really, the author was raised Roman Catholic and her parents became Orthodox while she was in college. She writes about the Christian liturgy during his burial with such beauty, it is nearly worth the price of the book, learning about her ill father coming to terms with his own mortality. (Ahh, she was surprised to hear this from the priest, and was understandably in a quandary; her dad knew he was dying? She lived across the continent but surely would have scraped together enough money for more plane fares had she known…) Later in the story, her mother dies (during Covid, no less) and the book is very much about emotional terrain experienced when one loses one’s parents.
This really is a memoir of family but the core of the book, even if anchored by the narratives of grief — is, as with her previous story, about being a Korean adoptee, raised in not only a very culturally white town (in Oregon, a place known historically for its “white only” laws) but raised by loving parents who were instructed by the adoption agency to raise her as white, unconnected to her Asian cultural heritage. She was a compliant child and never told her parents about the Asian taunts, the bullying, the racism she encountered even as a child and as a teen. She just couldn’t wait to leave.
As a working class family, her parents could not afford many of the things her upper middle class friends took for granted. She covered well and her family was loving and active in church. But when it came time to go off to college she hardly knew how to apply.
There are two chapters in this book that tell the story of the difficulties of being the first person from a family to go off to college and it seems to me that anyone who works in college life, in student affairs, in collegiate ministry, should read and ponder her story of economic woes while a student. At least at the East Coast university where she ended up (with hard earned scholarships) she was not the only person of color, not the only Asian.
Besides this being a book about an adopted Korean girl from a poorer, small-town, family, making her way through life, even in a big university (and the complications of marrying, young, a great guy from a family of means) it ends up, also, having a lot to say about the inequities in health care in this country. It is a memoir, of course, a narrative, not a polemic, but the insights just naturally pour out. Had her family been able to afford better preventive health care (including earlier diagnostic efforts) her father would not have died when he did. As Julie Otsuka (author of The Swimmers) put it, she writes “with nuance and empathy about what it means to be ill and economically insecure in America today.” Otsuka continues, “she transforms her rage and anguish into luminous prose on the page.”
She transforms her rage and anguish into luminous prose on the page.
There’s a lot going on, gently at times, told with vignettes that are entertaining and good, good reading. Her mentor Amani Perry (of the much-discussed South to America) notes that A Living Remedy is “brimming with insight about class, race, identity, and politics, it will move and transform readers with its beauty, spirituality, and wisdom.”
A transcendent memoir about family, class, and the contours of loss. . . . In her clear, concise prose, Chung makes the personal political, tackling everything from America’s crushingly unjust health care system to the country’s gauzy assumptions about adoption, a practice that is itself rooted in economic inequality. . . . With this work, Chung offers a luminous addition to the literature of loss, from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Notes on Grief to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Absorbing, spare and sometimes terrifyingly close to the abyss, A Living Remedy shows us the power of resilience. — New York Times Book Review
A Living Remedy is a bouquet of feeling–Nicole Chung weaves a groundbreaking narrative steeped in love, humor, the infinitude of memory, and the essentiality of community. Chung approaches the kaleidoscope of grief from its many angles, excavating its complexity with heart and candor; but Chung’s prose also soothes, uncovering hidden corners of the heart and its many permutations. A Living Remedy is elegiac and heart-expanding, a memoir that’s both an exploration of loss and a beacon for moving forward. We couldn’t be luckier to have this gift of a book. — Bryan Washington, author of Memorial
This astounding and immensely moving memoir is a gift. It is a chance to think about family, mortality, love, and grief. It is a chance to confront the broken healthcare system we live within. From the most intimate to the most public, A Living Remedy holds gem-like questions about all that matters. — Megha Majumdar, author of A Burning
The Best Strangers in the World: Stories from a Life Spent Listening Ari Shapiro (HarperOne) $28.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $23.19
My goodness — who knew? I like Ari Shapiro from NPR but, to be honest, knew nothing about him. He is an empathetic interviewer, an astute questioner, a good reporter. I love his voice, I respect his sense of stories, his balance. I couldn’t wait to read his auto-biography, learning about who he really is.
Well, what a story. Where to even begin. I hardly knew he was Jewish (although, duh, right?) I did not know he was gay. I didn’t know — where have I been? — that he was a singer, touring often with Pink Martinis, a band with a campy, international flavor and following, whose CDs we have carried for years.
Each of these aspects of his identity and his role in the world are shared in the first portions of the book and I was utterly captivated. Even after the first few pages I kept exclaiming to Beth how very interesting it was, and how joyfully entertaining. I read parts out loud. What an upbeat, clear, and fabulous wordsmith, and what a good storyteller. Naturally. I truly can’t tell you of a book I’ve so enjoyed, just so enjoyed, in ages.
I suppose not everyone would be entertained by his early chapter about coming out in high school, his nerdy youth and coming of age with some rowdy gay friends in the underground scene in Portland. He was outgoing and mostly popular, although faced some bullying. (He had already come to appreciate being a stand out and even a bit of a performer while spending his earliest grade school years as the only Jewish kid in his Fargo ND elementary school, tasked with explaining Hanukkah to the kids celebrating Christmas.) Being gay in school a few decades ago wasn’t easy, of course, and think what you will of his telling, it is really engaging. He’s a good writer, an honest memoirist, and I kept turning the pages, smiling as I went. I like this guy.
After his journey to Yale he was surprised to get an internship with the great Nina Totenberg at NPR which got him in the door there, long before he became a host of All Things Considered. His stories from there unfold — what a great read, learning about that world. Later, his first day as a real employee was 9-11. Citing the old NPR staff joke that they reported stuff “a day late, and called it analysis” he realized there were so many stories to tell of that awful day. Soon, the nearby Pentagon is attacked and there are creepy vans outside of their own DC offices; employees must move away from the windows. This isn’t the most dramatic account of his journalistic career, but it is a riveting and poignant start.
A lot of his storytelling is a bit self deprecating. He tells of his first day as a White House correspondent when he ended up in the Oval Office by mistake. Ha! He says good things about his colleagues in the press corp and is always honest about his own goofs, but, as we know, he is a consummate professional, a solid, solid guy, and a reporter with a passion for telling real stories, fairly. The Best Strangers takes you around the world.
Which leads to one of several “musical interludes” as he calls them, describing his role recording, and then singing, and then touring with Pink Martinis. They are the sort of band that brings in eccentric and unexpected guests, including Phyllis Diller, whose “swan song was a Pink Martini collaboration — a recording of the song “Smile” written by her old friend, Charlie Chaplin.” Exactly.
The band has done benefits for gay rights in the 1990s and is known for their peace-through-music vibe. But, as Ari explains,
Although the band doesn’t play at overtly political events today, there’s a clear element of musical diplomacy to what we do. Pink Martini goes to the reddest parts of Texas and sings songs in Arabic. In Greece, the band performs Turkish songs. We’re not opining on the Iran Nuclear deal or NATO from the stage. But as the singer Andra Day once told me, music is the only thing that can enter your psyche without permission. It’s hard to view someone as an enemy when you’re dancing and clapping along to their songs.
And then he tells how they had to curtail their famous all-around-the room Conga lines because of “Her Excellency” demands in a particular Arab country. And other threats and discriminations they’ve faced along the way as they’ve toured the world, from Casablanca to Tunis and Abu Dhabi, singing a song by his friend (A Jordanian Palestinian TV procure) suggesting empathy for Syrian refugees. It didn’t always go over well.
There is beautiful writing here about his marriage to his husband and lots about his personal life, but most of the book is about being a globally-inclined. human interest radio reporter, a world-renowned journalist of the first order.
He tells of eating reindeer stew and sipping Swedish vodka (while covering “a growing extremist anti-refugee movement” in Sweden, alongside a trip to the Fulani people in West Africa, and a story they did among the fisherman of Fraserburgh, a small Scottish town on the North Sea that was working on an ecological comeback by carefully rebuilding their cod fisheries. From ending up with dramatic illnesses (and ending up in the wrong hospitals) to entering war zones, there is so much he has experienced and goodness he has covered.
Regarding the 2014 murder of a Palestinian youth (in retaliation for Palestinian militant’s murder of an Israeli teen) he writes,
I went to Abu Chedi family’s mourning tent in East Jerusalem, because I had heard that a bus full of sympathetic Jews was planning to show up, sit with the family, and offer condolences. I wondered how the encounter would go and wanted to see whether people would be able to build a bridge across this canyon of religion, identity, and mutual suspicion.
He also notes, “When I arrived, I was surprised to find there weren’t many other reporters there. To me, this seemed like an obvious draw for journalists looking for a break from the dark chronicle of rocks thrown and rockets fired.” What a story ensues…The Best Strangers in the World explains it all.
Ari is a blast. He knows he is extraordinarily lucky (“blessed” he actually says) and while there’s plenty of fun celebrity stories — singing for Bono, performing a wedding where the Obamas are present — he also talks about curious stuff, from his problem with the sweats, an odd story about a zany, risqué party, all alongside heartbreakingly vital coverage of events such as the Pulse nightclub massacre, live from Orlando.
There’s a great few pages near the end where they ponder the “artificial divide between ‘hard news’ and ‘soft news.’ (He had tackled the topic of journalistic “objectivity” earlier.) He quotes his friend Sam Sanders (who created the podcasts It’s Been a Minute and Into It) who says it is “structurally oppressive — a way of diminishing marginalized groups.” Sanders continues,
All the stuff that the old school voice-of-God journalists want to call the “soft stuff”, that they don’t care about, always happens to be stuff about women, and Black and Brown folks, and gay people.”
Sam and his podcasts are a testament that you can’t understand the so-called hard stories about “just facts” until you understand the cultural significance and emotional stuff that’s in the softer stories.
And, man, Arie is right — how very important are these human interest stories and background pieces, the fascinating, humane, even admittedly sometimes eccentric pieces about the human condition. His story about Zimbabwean freedom fighter, Savanna Madamombe, whose “weapons of choice” are flowers, is classic, and she ends up having influence at the United Nations. He shares it at the close of the book.
He and his NPR colleagues are national treasures, I think, common graces that we should elevate. This book will help. “I feel lucky”, he says, “to carry these kinds of stories.” He is blessed to “carry them with me, as examples of how to confront life’s ugliness with beauty, how to meet horror with humor, and how to smile in the face of whatever comes next.”
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