It often happens this time of year. My head is nearly spinning, giddy with the thought of sharing with you our picks for the Best Books of 2022. Christmas is always hectic here in retail-land and then the new year is often (thank goodness) a bit more hectic than we expect or remember. We’re so glad folks are sending us interesting requests for us to weigh in on, asking for book ideas for their winter programing, for their reconvened book clubs, for their upcoming preaching season, for their classes, for their own personal reading plans. It’s just a busy time of year to be creating this momentous post.
Which then makes me ponder about the point of all the list-making and honorable mentioning. As a struggling bookseller, I’ll admit: our goal is to persuade you to buy books. From us. Obviously.
And yet, there is some altruistic motivation, too, an educational offer for the common good. We really do want to inform the reading public and (insofar as they notice or care) honor publishers and their authors who do good work. There’s no real awards show or prize money, of course, so our little hoopla goes mostly unnoticed.
Yet, our fans and friends and followers want to know what we think. I am so honored by that. We thank you for caring.
So, here is a righteous shout-out to a handful of really good books. My top ten.
Here’s my caveat, offered as bluntly as I can put it. I am not insisting these are the “best” books, whatever that may mean. Heaven knows, I am not a judge of that.
But they are books I loved. Books I think others should read. Books we want to honor.
Soon, we’ll do a second list of more titles and authors that we consider the cream of the crop of 2022; the best of the best, in the literary world that I know, at least. I can’t wait to list those for you.
But here, today, I want to celebrate my choices for my own favorite books of the year. These are the ones I most enjoyed and that I think are worthy of being on a year’s end recommended reading list. These achieved that sweet spot of being delightfully written, artful and entertaining, and important, with something vital to say. These are my own choices for my favorite (nonfiction) books of 2022. I commend them all, strongly so. Each is a masterpiece that gave me many meaningful hours with these good volumes in my lap. I hope you order something from this list today.
The ORDER LINK is at the very bottom of this column… don’t forget to scroll down the whole way.
MY VERY FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2022
Wastelands: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial Corban Addison (Knopf) $30.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $24.00
This is one of the most dramatic and well written books I have ever read. Like a novel (and I’ve read this author’s fiction) it has such lush description and well crafted sentences — it’s a beauty to behold. I have to say this is the book I enjoyed the most all year and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes vivid, energetic prose and one heckuva story.
Yet, it is hard to say I “liked” it because it is horrendous, deeply so. It is about a major, years long, lawsuit against the CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) hog operations in North Carolina and the extraordinary lengths the fat cats at Smithfield (now owned by a communist Chinese business tycoon) and their acolytes in the North Carolina legislature went to fight this suit.
Along the way you meet the folks — mostly Black — who inherited land generations previous and their hopes for a quiet, agrarian life. Most are church-goers and since the author himself is a Christian (I know from his other work) he seems particularly aware of the sustenance and value simple country folks get from their small churches. Drawing on faith and hope and a good bit of love they take their stand against the sickening odors and disease from these shit-filled facilities.
(One learns quite a bit about the extraordinary amount of refuse that comes from packing tens of thousands of hogs in a small space — more waste than a small city would handle, but devoid of regulation. The pollution is gross and offensive with foul lagoons overflowing, trucks that carry out dead hogs disrupting the quiet nights, the spray method — spraying the excrement into the air — beyond ridiculous; cruel. Other proven methods less harmful to public health would cut into Smithfield’s profits a bit, so were obviously tabled time and again. The public officials tasked with protecting people simply ignored the issues. The EPA was nowhere to be found, in any event, useless against the war chests of big meat.)
Faithful followers of Christ or not — and many seem to be — the heroes of this story (besides the dignified homeowners who protested, and are forever hated by many of their neighbors) are the valiant lawyers from a small practice in North Carolina (who recruited a passionate public interest attorney from Colorado) and their teams who are on the side of the angels. Over and over and over they face obstacles, including threats of intimidations and violence, by those who start up these huge industrial hog facilities (I will not call them farms; one does not have to be Wendell Berry to see the utter disregard for and even disdain of traditional agriculture from these CAFO billionaires.) This is the wildest David and Goliath story I have ever read.
The great foreword is by Baptist bestseller, the one and only John Grisham. He lamented that he hadn’t made up a story this thrilling or told one so well as this. It is remarkable praise and after reading Grisham’s foreword I was hooked. If you like his legal fiction (or movies like The Pelican Brief or the iconic Erin Brockovich) you have to get this book immediately. You won’t be able to stop turning pages, believe me. Who knows, you may end up wanting to go to law school to take up public interest advocacy.
The history of black property owners is explored. The rise of the meat industry and the big slaughterhouses are explained. There’s some fascinating studies of the science of aroma (and the bogus study of smells that the high-priced, pseudo-scientist Smithfield put on the stand.) From pondering legal jurisprudence to the inside look at a mid-size law firm (these are not the big shots from “The Good Fight or other such big city practices) to the toll stressful cases take on mental health and relationships — again the case took years and years with millions of dollars of expenses and multi-millions at stake — Wastelands is so informative. Anybody interested in lawyering or legal practice has to read it. The details of jury selection and court process and how an opening argument is crafted (and rehearsed) and the complexities of cross examination and — yes — appeals are all fascinating, written with expert detail but colorfully textured that, again, is like an unfolding novel. Beside the turn-paging plot and the struggle for justice (one could hardly make up such corrupt bad guys), the telling is gripping. I’ve said before that Corbin Addison is one heck of a storyteller and an artful writer.
As Grisham himself puts it, Wastelands is:
Beautifully written, impeccably researched, and told with the air of suspense that few writers can handle…
This absorbing book that evokes thrills and emotions and makes you think about so very much will, in the words of the remarkable nonfiction master Wilbur Smith, “hold you spellbound with his elegant prose from his first word to his last.”
Jonathan Harr, author of the best-seller A Civil Action, says:
In this book, Addison turns a novelist’s eye to the thorny complexities of a real legal case. The prose is lyrical, the cast of characters jump to life on the page, and the result is a captivating account of how a small group of citizens bring a huge corporation to justice.
A few more things to be aware of, things that make this even more page-turning and so very important, given how our democracy is these days.
There is evidence here — explicitly documenting and powerfully exposing — a propaganda campaign on the part of the meatpackers at Smithfield. They spent millions airing sweet TV footage (and creating billboards) of family farms with bucolic scenes in lovely rural villages (and their smiling children) all the while implying that the litigants — who have hog excrement (from the CAFO’s spraying methods) on their laundry lines and cannot stand having a picnic or worship service from the affront of the odor and presence of the CAFO’s waste — hate farmers, hate meat, hate bacon. What a batch of lies, these industrial hog-facilities portraying themselves as quaint rural farmers with traditional (Christian) folkways. And people fell for it, believing the litigants were liberal leftists who are trying to stop farmers and American business and small farmers. That the lawyers were just in it for the money. This PR campaign was insidious and despicable but it framed the lawsuits in a certain (utterly untrue) light. It is an ugly part of the book even though Addison doesn’t dwell on it.
Secondly, the ungodly relationship between government and business was so odd that even super strict conservative constitutional scholars opposed the machinations of the North Carolina House, if to no effect. We’ve seen shenanigans in our own State House and we all know what goes on in DC sometimes. This is the most egregious move to pass legislation that would prop up an industry under fire of which I know, and I’ve studied this sort of injustice a bit. Man. Read it and weep, especially if you live in North Carolina. Those who voted to protect Smithfield from litigation should be ashamed of themselves.
Thirdly, although it isn’t directly an overt part of this story, there is hovering around this plot the question of how we eat, what sort of farming practices we want to encourage, and how to reform large scale agriculture. (For another expose of the meat industry as such, see Raw Deal: Hidden Corruption, Corporate Greed, and the Fight for the Future of Meat by Chloe Sorvino.) Insofar as the Smithfield-led CAFO industry was forced to grapple with their irresponsible business practices which clearly harm the air and Earth and neighborhoods (not to mention abusive of the animals) there is some modicum of reform. But the bigger questions this raises are themselves huge.
Wastelands brilliantly in captivating detail offers an important investigation, creating a truly great story, making this a rare, exceptional book. I am happy to name it as one of the Very Best of 2022.
South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation Imani Perry (Ecco) $28.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $23.19
I have reviewed this, briefly, before, and I have pondered my comments last summer when I read this the first time. I admittedly skimmed some in the beginning as I just knew it was so important I had to describe it for you. It is so rich, so vast, covering so much — more on that in a moment — and is so wondrously creative that I was glad to commend it. It subsequently won the prestigious National Book Award and, so, I was proven right. South to America is extraordinary, nothing short of brilliant. As the great Isabel Wilkerson notes, describing its elegance, it is “by an esteemed daughter of the South and one of the great intellectuals of our time.”
I was correct to explain that this is part African American history, part cultural studies, in the format of a travelogue or memoir. I noted the book’s light touches — she talks about candy or sweets that she likes, the outfits she wears, shoes, pop music, memories of her girlhood, gentle conversations she has along the way.
Let it also be said that there are reports here, consistently, of the savage ways Black people have been abused, from the Middle Passage to the slave blocks, from the Plantations of certain parts of the South to the Jim Crow lynchings and the onerous daily indignities faced by Black people everywhere in America, almost always. Isabel Wilkerson is right to say that this is a meditation on “the complexities of the American South — and thus of America.” I believe this is one of the most educational, informative, inspiring books on America I have ever read.
To remind you, the structure of the book is splendid. In each chapter Perry visits a certain location, usually a city or region, ranging from Virginia, Annapolis, Baltimore, and West Virginia through Louisville, Memphis and Nashville, into a chapter on North Carolina called ‘Tobacco Road in the Bible Belt” and to the deeper South (Birmingham and Mobile, Atlanta and the famous “Black Belt.”) From Baton Rouge and New Orleans (what a chapter) to Florida (and its important survey of indigenous people and Spanish colonization) to (yes, and it’s important) the Bahamas, Cuba, and Haiti, she explores so very, very much.
If you like travelogues, this should appeal to you. I had little idea about any of these places, even though I’ve visited a few and read about others. South to America, though, filled in the color, the details, the local history, good and bad. If you want to learn some fine details through the eyes of an expert in Black history and Black literature, Perry is the best possible guide you could find. Read South to American, please.
You should know this; Perry is from the South, but now lives around Philly while she teaches at Princeton. (And, yes, there is a chapter on that most Southern of the Ivies.) Her parents were Black civil rights and movement activists and they introduced her to everybody. She is young, but knows so much about so much. The book shifts and moves, almost stream of consciousness-like, at times. One minutes she is describing something about the colors of historic cloth used for certain things in the colonial era or wild Savannah legends or Haitian slave revolts or the racial history of Beale Street and Elvis or riffing on mobile homes in Mobile or the rise of black Catholic nuns in New Orleans or offering great details about entertainers or artists. She knows quite a bit about African history and she knows tons of details about characters she introduces us to in the US cities she visits. She gets around.
Dr. Perry is a scholar, a writer, an artist, and a historian. (She wrote a previous book that was seriously awarded on the life of Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry called Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry that illustrates her wide knowledge.) I admire her greatly. There are moments, though — I’ll admit this but I hope it doesn’t scare you off — I had no idea what she was talking about. There are sentences that are gloriously poetic but, frankly, made no sense. Over and over I’ve re-read certain paragraphs and, not unlike the hippest of contemporary creative writing, some of it leaves me scratching my head. I had to look up a few words — and oh, what a wordsmith she is. Some of it, I suspect, is my lack of familiarity with deep Black culture. In any case, this is mostly wonderfully written, deep, thoughtful, poetic, mystical, inspiring. It’s an amazing book, one I have read twice and will surely find time to read again. We eagerly add our voices to the many who have named it one of the great books of our time.
I do not want to overstate this but I have read a number of books about Black history, African- American culture, racial justice and multi-ethnic ministry. We have a lot of good ones. There is something about South To America that was so rich it demanded more than one read and there is so very much happening, so many turns of events and so many places she talks about that I think it is one of the most important books in this field that I’ve ever read. I cannot imagine a white person, at least, and probably most others, who will not learn something new.
South to America marks time like Beloved did. Similarly, we will talk not solely of books about the south, but books generally as before or after South to America. I have known and loved the South for four decades and Imani Perry has shown me that there is so much more in our region’s fleshy folds to know, explore and love. It is simply the most finely crafted and rigorously conceived book about our region, and nation, I have ever read. — Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy
The Pastor’s Bookshelf: Why Reading Matters for Ministry Austin Carty (Eerdmans) $19.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.99
If there is one recent book that I wish every pastor and Christian leader would read, it is this one. My, my, it is a blast, fun, even. The author was on the national TV show Survivor, for crying out loud — how can it not be? It is nicely written, moving at times, serious minded without being fussy. His unique combo of clarity and sophistication and teacherly explanation reminds me of Richard Mouw, and that is saying a lot. He’s a very good writer, not overly flamboyant, but he’s obviously got some colorful writing chops.
But more to the point, this chronicles Carty’s increasing awareness that to be a good pastor in the classic sense, he simply must be a reader. He must make it a point to read daily, and to read widely, including lots of fiction. He is, I dare say, in this regard, at least, the closest thing we’ve got to Eugene Peterson whose love of reading and convictions about that hover around the entire book. If you appreciated Peterson’s almost grumpy resistance to trends about mega- leadership and speedy techniques for growth and formulas for hipper churches, you’ll love Austin Carty. He isn’t quite so old as Eugene but there he is, citing Peterson’s stories about reading well as a pastoral duty.
I so appreciated his calm guidance, his stories of meeting with others to invite them to read more, his suggestions on how to make it happen. This is exciting for any of us who are book lovers and great for those who need an extra push in the right direction. He’s got both a deep and big perspective but he’s also a good teacher about this stuff, practical and helpful.
Naturally, he uses the trope of reading for “formation, not information” which if you’ve heard me on this topic, you know I recite routinely. He shows how reading can nurture wisdom and help us learn to love. This whole section about formation is rich and inspiring and, I might add, good for anyone, not just pastors.
The next portion covers specific practices and aspects of the reading life as it works out in a pastors life. I am not a clergy person, but this still was fabulously inspiring for me as he explores how reading well can help with sermons and pastoral care, vision casting and leadership. He is right that reading is “not a luxury.”
The final part includes six great chapters on reading with a good attitude, on the spiritual discipline of study, of how to choose what to read. (He even has a section on marking and filing, which was awe-inspiring, but I’m not there. Whoa.) The final chapter, which is fantastic, is about reading the Scriptures — obviously. It’s a great way to end the book and wise on any number of levels.
The Pastor’s Bookshelf: Why Reading Matters is truly one of my favorite books of the year. I hope you get a few and share them with readers and maybe those who are not as given to the reading life. Pastors, certainly, and others.
As the great pastoral leader and author Thomas Long puts it in his fabulous introduction, “One remarkable feature of Carty’s writing in this volume is how much of it is done in conversation with others, particularly parishioners and others who are on the receiving end of ministry. Carty hopes to encourage pastors who read, but not merely as a form of gratuitous self-improvement, but reading done among, with, and for the people of God.” Nice, huh?
Christians are a people of the Word, yet we are formed more and more today by wanton, careless words. Those who will lead the church well will be those who are formed by good words — those who know the power words have over our hearts and minds. Those who read good books well will be such leaders. Pastors who read and live by the wisdom in this book will be changed, as will their ministries and the people to whom they minister. This book belongs on every pastor’s shelf. — Karen Swallow Prior, author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books
Reading is crucial for ministry, not as a mine for anecdotes and illustrations, but as an apprenticeship of the imagination. In this warm and wise book, Austin Carty invites pastors to develop capacious reading habits, as wide and curious and wonderful as the world in which they serve. I hope this book is an occasion for many pastors to build new shelves of poetry and fiction, biography and memoir, all of them adventures in understanding humanity. — James K. A. Smith, editor of Image journal, author of You Are What You Love
I am gobsmacked by this book’s threefold beauty: its writing, its erudition, and the author’s deep commitment to what true reading can give not only pastors, but us all. — Maryanne Wolf, author of Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World
Surrender: Forty Songs, One Story Bono (Knopf ) $34.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $27.20
I have written in my mind about five different reviews of this, sharing this or that feature, recalling this or that story, saying which parts I was most moved by. I think to honor this as one of my very favorite books that I read this year, nearly devouring it, I’ll just share what I wrote back when it first came out before Christmas. Here goes:
Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story is one of the very best books I’ve read all year and it will certainly be in my personal favorites list coming up next month. In a way, it is a book of a lifetime for me. As a fan of U2, as a music-lover, as a uniquely Christian music-lover, this book resonated with me so very, very much. It brought stunning insight and joy; lots of joy. And, man, does Bono know his stuff. He knows so much stuff. Sure, he’s got the swagger, and he (as one reviewer noted, here “embraces his contradictions.”) But he really is smart. This book is an education in the popular culture of the last 40 years.
Let me just say four quick things about Surrender. I could, and surely should, wax more eloquently about it (it’s over 550 pages, after all) but I want to keep this relatively succinct. I want you to know (if you don’t already) whether this book is for you.
Uno, the book is not exactly linear and chronological (would you expect it to be?) but it mostly is. And there are song titles for chapter headings; naturally the first chapters are entitled from songs from their earliest recordings. (And the last few are, naturally, from their last albums; the important penultimate chapter is called “The Moment of Surrender” which you know from the No Line on the Horizon album.)
We learn from Mr. Paul Hewson in his own words a lot about his boyhood, the rough and rowdy ways of the religiously-conflicted Northern Ireland during the years of the troubles. With famous songs about “Sunday Bloody Sunday” outspoken pacifist tirades by the socially aware frontman of the social aware band, with nuanced lyrics recalling about how they cut down the few trees in their neighborhood and used them against their enemies (from “Peace on Earth” on All That You Can’t Leave Behind) I would have expected a bit more of the Troubles. Instead we hear about his love of bands, his school experiences, the impact of books he read, like Lord of the Flies, and — a theme throughout the whole book — the sudden death of his mother, Iris, when he was a young teen. So many of the lyrics of his long career, we come to find out, are veiled (or not so veiled) references to his mother and father. (As he sings in “Iris (Hold Me Close)” on Songs of Experience, “The ache in my heart is so much a part of who I am…”)
He’s a hurting punk and wanted to be a punk rocker, and man, I grew to love him more, learning a bit, in impressionistic style, about his youth and his longing for a more stable family.
He met his best friend, Ali, in his teen years in Dublin, Ali who became a girlfriend, who became his wife, early on. Again, this bit of his past is exceedingly important to him, enduring for him. My hunch is that many celebrities and certainly many rock stars are less connected to their youth, their past, their families. Or at least they think it isn’t cool to share that sort of sentimental family stuff. I loved that Bono has such affection for his dad (even if there was a lot of brokenness) and it was fun learning about Ali. It was fun learning about how he met the other three guys in the band and the importance of their friendships. His loyalty to these men is remarkable and in a way Surrender is a memoir of the trusting loyalty of these friendships.
I am a serious fan of the music, a real fan of Bono’s political action, and have admired his sly art as it transfigured and changed over the years. I really enjoy all of the albums and admire them all. (As we suspected, by the way, the changes were often very intentional; the Zoo-TV era antics of the Fly and the sensory overload of the shows were almost fully satire, some of it literally informed by C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, messing with the devil, their dangerously materialistic lifestyles mostly an embodied prophetic experiment.) So I know their work. But I have not read fan bios and knew very little about Bono’s family life. Maybe other fans knew about Ali and his children, but I think this is the most forthcoming he has been about them. There are beautiful pages, lovely episodes shared with many passages about the hard conflicts and honest struggles. Bono knows he has a very good woman by his side and he knows if he isn’t careful (as one of the most famous rock stars in the world) he could blow it. He almost did. But, man, his candor and poetic insight was some of the most romantic stuff I have read, ever. My hat is off and my heart is warmed.
Dos, did I mention the music? I could quote pages and pages about this (and have sticky notes throughout the book in case I want to do a serious study.) He goes on tangents — not really tangents, just colorful side-journeys, into his friendships with other artists. From punk guys to Frank Sinatra, soul singers to new wave artists, from Prince to black gospel choirs, he tells endearing and sometimes heartbreaking tales of the many people he admires and loves. It is very obvious — he never speaks badly of anyone (except himself) and even when talking honestly about the horrors of drug or alcohol abuse (even Adam’s) he is not judgmental or mean-spirited. His generosity is lovely and his Irish storytelling — often of drinking late at night — is captivating. As a celebrity he knows he has been given quite remarkable opportunities, but he is also a gregarious bridge-builder and he knows more artists, working in different genres, than you could imagine.
He has encouraged many rising artists to apply their craft to anti-poverty and other justice measures; he tells of fashion designers, models, film-makers, poets, novelists, painters, dancers. Wow. Not bad from a kid from the Northside.
His story of how Pavarotti got him involved in relief work in Sarajevo is, by the way, hilarious. Annoying as it was, he applauded Pavarotti’s tenacity in pursuing him. “Miss Sarajevo” (from the pseudonymical “Passengers” album) remains one of Bono’s favorite pieces of his career. His moving reflections on Sinatra were powerful; his tribute to Michael Hutchence (of INXS) and his suicide was very tender.
Do you recall when a hard rock band was playing in Paris (in 2015) and a mass shooting killed dozens of audience members? U2 were doing a series of stadium shows also in Paris that week and their show was shut down — it wasn’t the only time Bono had experienced a mass shooting, by the way. When they rescheduled the cancelled show they brought the smaller bar band — Eagles of Death Metal — onto their stage so they could finish their show that was so horrifically interrupted. These small stories of bands and stages and colleagues in the music biz were a blast to read and often inspiring.
And the recordings! I have read lots of books about rock music. Serious music lovers who read this sort of stuff may know Greil Marcus’s magisterial work Mystery Train: Images of American in Rock ’n Roll Music or his book on Dylan and the Band’s “Basement Tapes” sessions (Old, Weird America.) And there are some really cool books on the details of certain recording sessions. Bono doesn’t give us that much of that sonic and technical detail, but there is plenty for even the most geeky fans of recording studios. Not to mention the small revelations of the band’s work with lighting artists and staging designers creating what have been some of the most outlandish, brilliant, and expensive stage shows in the rock touring world. This is all so interesting but it never turns self-indulgent, naming the obscure brands of tubes or speakers or the sorts of electronics in the amps. (Although it might be said that it is self-indulgent in a different way as he talks much about the personal stuff going on in the midst of these urgent sessions, squeezing in so much global activist between tours and recordings, struggles with his voice, and the constant guidance of producers like Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.)
I love hearing bits about so many songs — his reflections nearer the end about writing songs about friendship (“Bad” for instance) or linking the famous “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or how one song was co-written by Salman Rushdie. I was glad to hear about them holding their ground on changing the plans for a nice, spared-down, acoustic rendition of “Ordinary Love” (from the Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom Movie) for a live, Oscar show performance.
So there’s family stuff, friendships, relationships, old ones and new ones. There’s music, U2s and Bono’s numerous friendships with so many other rock artists. There’s great stuff on performing, on singing, or writing, or recording. If you like rock music (and especially if you like U2) this book is going to be a true joy.
Tres — and this is huge —there is a whole lot on politics. I found these portions hard to put down and as one who has engaged in a tiny, tiny bit of lobbying and protesting and building civic coalitions, I found this insider’s look to be a blast. Early on, Bono learned (from a story about Dr. King told to him by Harry Belefonte) to build bridges even with those one might not want to work with. There were times when Bono was deeply lobbying the Bush administration — with the Jubilee campaign to cancel the third world debt, with ONE and then with his DATA and (RED) to fund life-saving drugs against AIDS in Africa — and was becoming friends with those who others on his team (and in his band) found unsavory. Bush was bombing Iraq, of course, torturing Muslims in off-the-grid black sites, and cutting budgets for the poor in the US. Yet, as he endured, learning from all sides, he came to be convinced of some of the value of conservative economic theory and in his famous office visits to right-winger Jesse Helms even found a friendly prayer partner. I was on the edge of my seat as Bono had to make some decisions regarding the leader of the free world and consequential choices about aid and trade, war and peace. Interestingly, though not surprisingly, friends like the late Mike Gerson are named. What a thrill, knowing how it finally turned out.
From his meetings with Nelson Mandela (and other lesser known African leaders) to his off-the-record opening of his home to Mikhail Gorbachev (despite Ali’s outspoken work with anti-nuclear power activists resisting Russian malfeasance at Chernobyl) to his palling around with (and fallings asleep at) the Obama’s, it is very entertaining, although none of it feels like name-dropping. To listen in on one with such amazing global connections who was actually nervous about it all — imposter syndrome, don’t ya know — and his bits of candor about, say, fretting about what to wear when one is a rock star visiting the Oval Office, made for a great read. If you care at all about how the world works and how change happens, if you’ve donated money to ONE or (RED) or other similar anti-poverty groups, listening to Bono will be as inspiring as listening to the likes of Gary Haugen or Melinda Gates. He knows a lot about the facts of economic development and global politics and he weaves it into magical stories, often with stories of his on-the-ground, real-life volunteerism in poor villages. You’ll learn a lot.
Catorce? I sort of hate to mention this final element as a discreet point since it is interwoven so naturally throughout the book, but it should be noted that Bono’s Christian faith — unorthodox and uneasy as it may seem to some — is central to the whole story. It is not just cited a little, it is not just mentioned briefly. There are Bible allusions and explications, basic theology, Christian authors mentioned, and spiritual realities talked about in significant ways during every portion of his life, so throughout the 40 chapters. (And you know, of course, that one of their most famous songs (”40”) is a nearly verbatim rendition of Psalm 40. Fans used to leave the stadium singing over and over “How long…”)
There is even a moving telling of the family’s deeply affecting religious tour of the Holy Land, which, for a glitzy rock star seems such a conventional, churchy practice. This is from the guy who says he “has never left Jesus out of the most banal or profane actions of my life.”
Most know how Bono’s father was a not terribly active Catholic and his mother was a good Protestant and how three of the band members came to a lively faith in a charismatic, Jesus-movement sort of evangelical ministry in their young adult years.They remained in touch with some of that crowd even after their faith moved to more ecumenical and liberationist ways and Bono continues to be haunted by that robust sense of the Spirit and that strong teaching of Biblical truth. For many of us, his casual, humorous, but serious-minded love/hate relationship with the church, is an inspiration. His honest lament and plea, of the sort found in “Wake Up Dead Man”, (from 1997’s Pop) means more than any number of happy-clappy CCM ditties.
Through his fame and tenacity and righteous commitments Bono has had contact with world-class Christian leaders, from Desmond Tutu to Eugene Peterson to a hilarious episode that he writes about with Pope John Paul II. When he is visiting dignitaries he mentions that he sometimes gives away books— often a volume of Yeats or other Irish poetry. But I happen to know he’s given away his share of The Message, too. I admit to getting teary-eyed when I read his brief acknowledgment of Eugene Peterson.
Relationships, music, politics, faith. Stories galore, goodness and failure, temptation and joy, meaning and vision, art and wealth, compromise, justice, romance, sex, life and death. There is so much in this marvelous, stimulating book.
One final word: Surrender is creatively and colorfully written. Bono can really write; it is whimsical, a bit stream-of-consciousness, and, man, can he turn a phrase. There are witty lines on every page, brilliant sentences, wondrous prose. His clever honesty has him say things like about his ego being “far taller than my self-esteem.” Ha.
As the flyleaf of this well designed volume puts it,
A remarkable book by a combative artist, who finds he’s at his best when he learns how to surrender.
The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness Meghan O’Rourke (Riverhead Books) $28.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.40
Memoirs of those with chronic pain or the drama of trying to find a diagnosis are important to me. So many of us suffer with unusual ailments and for some, the pain (or the quest for answers) can nearly lead to madness. For others, it generates remarkable insight into the broken human condition and allows for a sense of grace, despite all. From practical guides for life lived while in chronic pain like the very good Hurting Yet Whole: Reconciling Body and Spirit in Chronic Pain and Illness by Liuan Huska (IVP; $17.00) to powerful stories like the brilliant The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery about Ross Douthat’s battle with Lyme disease (Convergent; $26.00) that carries a fine endorsement by Kate Bowler, there are many to commend.
The Invisible Kingdom is one of the best books I’ve read this year because it is so full of pathos, yes, but also because it is so elegantly written, so very thoughtful, so honest and real.
O’Rourke is an academic who teaches in New York City and makes her living also as a writer and poet. Besides contributing intelligent pieces to The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and the like she has done several volumes of poetry and, a decade or so ago, a moving memoir about the early death her mother called A Long Goodbye.
The Invisible Kingdom was a finalist for the American Book Award and that, of course, carries its own weight and recommendation. It is notable because it is so well written (and in that sense, I say, carefully, that it is in a sense entertaining, a good read) but also because it covers not only her own story, her marriage, her work, her aspirations and fears and (yes, of course) her many encounters with medical practitioners (And, like Ross Douthat’s with alternative medicine folks who she might have been averse to in another life, but, now, desperate, is willing to try nearly anything in the search for answers and relief.)
If this were all this book did — a moving memoir offering a writer’s candid glimpse into the life of one with eccentric disorders and unclear diagnoses — it would be more than enough. I honor Ms O’Rourke for her candor and courage in sharing this stuff so very, very well. Her coping with a compromised autoimmune disorder is not uncommon but her writing is extraordinary.
But there is, as the telemarketers say, still more. Besides this eloquent and life-giving memoir there are excursions into the history and philosophy of science, of medicine, of women’s medicine. About the common accusation that “it is all in your head.” The trends in medical care and the backstory value systems that are in the air — Freudian assumptions, views about hysteria, and more — are vital to understand and O’Rourke carefully dissects many of the prevalent motifs that entangle even caring physicians.
Not to mention those who are not so caring. And those who wish to be but may not buck the managed care strictures of the insurance companies demanding that they spend less time with patients, not more. Anybody who cares about humane and effective health care simply must keep up with some of the debates that this book evokes, and The Invisible Kingdom is a good way into those discussions. At times searing, and at times tender, I recommend it to doctors and nurses of all sorts.
Allow me to be blunt: if you opposed President Obama’s reform of health care, popularly known as Obamacare, a few years ago, you need to read this book, hearing from the ground up what a middle class professional goes through in managing her appointments and less than efficient doctors, all time strapped due to financial considerations of the management teams to supervisor most hospitals in America. If you worked for passage of some kind of health care reform, this will be a refresher course — in the first person — of some of what is at stake. This is not, I’ll remind you, a book of politics or policy but a narrative of illness and struggle, a search for hope. But some of the health care reforms (starting with doctors not dismissing their patients and their stories of discomfort) that are so very needed are insinuated into this well-crafted story.
Of the many rave reviews this book has garnered here are just two:
In this elegant fusion of memoir, reporting, and cultural history, O’Rourke traces the development of modern Western medicine and takes aim at its limitations, advocating for a community-centric healthcare model that treats patients as people, not parts. At once a rigorous work of scholarship and a radical act of empathy, The Invisible Kingdom has the power to move mountains. —Esquire
Listen to this amazing quote by Esme Eijun Wang, author of The Collected Schizophrenias, a quote saying it is “the best book on the subject.” Wow.
I’ve gone through much literature about being sick, hoping to better understand the tangle of circumstances relevant to chronic illness. In The Invisible Kingdom, O’Rourke brilliantly unpicks the threads, creating the best book on the subject that I’ve read yet.
Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury Evan Osnos (Farrar Straus & Giroux) $30.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $24.00 // now in paperback $20.00 OUR SALE PRICE – $16.00
I think I am not going to try to say much about this other than to assure you that if you are one (like so many in America) are trying to figure out how it all happened — people falling for Trump’s election lies, the storming of the Capitol, the right of the alt-right, the wild weirdness of our civic life these days — if you are among those grasping at ways to discern how we got here, this, then, is a must read. It is more detailed than some may want but it, in my view, top notch reporting and expose, narrative nonfiction that rivals classics such as Dopesick or Soul Full of Coal Dust (among my favorite books in this genre.) Not quite as eloquent and dramatic as Wastelands it is none-the-less a page turner. I couldn’t put it down and didn’t stop reading (as I often do) until I finished the acknowledgements on page 433. What a book.
The short version is this: Wildland is a study of three pockets of American culture, including the very rich in the financial sector, including dubious hedge funds (in Greenwich CT — I had no idea that place was that wealthy) and the financially hard off in small town West Virginia, and in quintessentially mid-western Chicagoland. The author (a master craftsman of investigative writing who won a National Book Award for his book The Age of Ambition) had lived in the Middle East and in China for years and upon returning home could hardly recognize the culture he left more than a decade previous. He went to three towns in which he had lived, which he thought he understood, and began to explore the stories of his former neighbors, telling about how things changed in the fast-paced era leading up to the Trump era. I like nonfiction narrative that is colorfully written with a personal touch and as Esnos tells of his connections to these three very different places, we learn to trust his instincts and become eager for his analysis, his evaluations. We are caught up in his own story, the search for answers, or at least some clues.
The stories switch back and forth from one place to the other, so much that it has been called “sprawling” and a “reportorial tour de force.” There are the super rich who came to favor President Trump (even though some despised him, personally) since his policies favored their Wall Street investments. (There are shades in this portion of the great literature and film that came out of the years of the Great Recession, with works about the subprime scandal like The Big Short.) There is the declining local newspaper in Clarksburg, West Virginia (and, yes, some shades of Dopesick and other studies of the complexities of Appalachian towns and governance.) The politics of Chicago and the black neighborhoods? Oh man — there’s much to be said but you can imagine.
This is not the study that is typical these days of disaffected poor white folks hitching their hopes to the straight talking Trump, duped into thinking he was on their side. That’s a story that has been well told, often. This, or so it seems to me, went after a different nuance, the shift in worldviews among the rich and the powerless, blacks and whites, from here and there, but often with a realization of how the greedy left such an impact. The scope is broad, if focused, and what he comes up with is nuanced and insightful. It is less about the wild rebellion of the Tea Party movement inspired by Bannon, segueing into the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. It’s maybe less dramatic than that kind of wild story, but, at the end, it pays off with greater insight into what makes this sad country tick. I really recommend it.
Diligent and deeply researched . . . Osnos offers intimate portraits of the men and women in the three communities on his radar . . . Wildland is written in first person, which often gives the book a satisfying immediacy . . . Osnos himself seems too driven, too idealistic to give up on the America that he once promoted on his travels abroad. But as he makes painfully clear in Wildland, the underbrush is still parched, and a mere ember could set it ablaze. — James S. Hirsch, Boston Globe
Evan Osnos’ Wildland is a reportorial tour de force, describing the kaleidoscopic changes that threaten to cause America to come apart at the seams. He deftly connects the dots between the hedge-fund billionaires of Greenwich, Connecticut, the opioid-soaked towns of Appalachia, and the gun-heavy gangs of Chicago. By turning his trained eye as a former foreign correspondent on his own country, Osnos paints an indelible picture that is heart-rending, appalling and hard to put down. — Jane Mayer, chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker and author of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right
The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World Andy Crouch (Convergent) $25.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $20.00
From a few pages in I knew I would love this book and early on I said to myself (and anyone else listening) that it surely will be among my favorite books of the last year. Yes, indeed. To honor it as a Best Book of 2022, I’ll reprise some of what I wrote back in April.
Andy is an elegant and careful writer, always offering interesting insights that set him above most authors of what I might call profoundly Christian cultural studies. But the genre of “cultural studies” doesn’t exactly capture the nature of his work which is notably personal as well. For instance, his book (one of my all time favorites) Culture-Making is about the human vocation to make things, to shape culture, to better the world —“recovering our creative calling” as the subtitle puts — so while it is in some ways about culture, informed by remarkable Bible study and a uniquely Christian world and life viewpoint, it isn’t essentially cultural criticism or social analysis; it is an invitation to a better way of life in and for the world.
It’s the same with his exceptionally important book on using power, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power where he makes an impeccable case that, like other things in God’s good but fallen world, institutions and organizations and influential leadership (that is to say authority and power) can be misused but, with great intentionality and care and prayerful innovation, can be exercised with grace and justice…
The Life We’re Looking For is new and after writing a small and practical book about using smartphones and computers well in a family setting, Crouch has returned to offer another major work. It comes to us in a slightly trim-sized hardback so even though it is 226 pages (including the intriguingly exquisite footnotes) it isn’t too long or hefty. It is mature and stimulating in his most gracefully crafted style yet. Tech scholar Sherry Turtle of MIT raves about it, calling it a “personal meditation” written with “warmth and erudition.”
Already in the pocket-sized Tech-Wise Family Crouch explored what it does to us when we are shaped — our habits, our inclinations, our desires, our sense of how the world is to work — by our devices. (He doesn’t note James K.A. Smith’s notion of “secular liturgies” in the new one but he surely could have.) The Life We’re Looking For goes a lot deeper and in different directions than Tech-Wise, inviting us to reflect on the meaning of being human, the importance of being made in God’s image, and how to exercise our capacities (even drawing on self-help neurological studies about “flow” and the like.) He is trying to consider what we really want — what Tish Warren in her back cover blurb calls “the most vulnerable longings of the human heart.” He knows that we have a primal need to be seen, to be “embedded in rich relationships.”
As we all know, one-click ordering from faceless corporations is designed to be seamlessly smooth and very efficient. And, as we should know, these algorithms and bureaucracies are damaging us, eroding community fabric and molding our attitudes. His brief rumination on not knowing the UPS and other delivery drivers in his neighborhood anymore, since Amazon has gig workers is quite observant and telling.
Do we really want this shallow connection — quantity over quality? Do we want devices to make everything easy (even if they could) as we become consumers, but less adept at using our bodies, playing instruments, cooking our own food? Do we want to be tethered to multitasking and regularly speed-speed-speed through increasingly impersonal environments? Do we want rugged individualism or do we long for communities of care, extended households, even? Andy’s chapters on the formation of such households — a countercultural move to subvert the individualism and even loneliness brought on by technocracy — were simple and radical and moved me to tears.
In an otherwise very positive review in Publisher’s Weekly they worried that The Life We’re Looking For was uneven, and I sort of understand why — Crouch covers a lot of ground. There are sections which include a bit on the history of technology, a look at alchemy (with a nod to Harry Potter), a good bit on artificial intelligence and “boring robots”, a powerful reflection on money/Mammon and nature of capitalism, his wife’s use of instruments in her scientific research, and an admitted excursion in what calls an “intermission” on a very moving story from the New Testament as a remarkable reminder of the early church’s presence within first-century Roman Empire.
All of that, and more, could be seen as tangents, but, trust me: they are not. The chapters weave together and reward the patient reader as connections are made and insights circle back and layer on one another, bit by bit. We all know these are confusing and contradictory times (“we love it, we hate it, ain’t that life?” the late, great Mark Heard sung so powerfully in “Nod Over Coffee.”) Andy’s book helps us navigate in healthy and even beautiful ways, the tensions and trade-offs of these days.
To glean the evocative style and deep wisdom of this book, ponder (and be enticed) by just a few of twelve chapter titles, paying close attention to the helpful subtitles:
- The Superpower Zone: How We Trade Personhood for Effortless Power
- Modern Magic: The Ancient Roots of Our Tech Obsessions
- From Devices to Instruments: Truly Personal Technology
None of this is bombastic or heavy-handed (as passionately concerned as he obviously is.) The book is not overly polemical nor alarmist. It is often gentle, even a bit quiet, in a way that seems proper for the human-scale ecology into which he is inviting us. In a chapter called “From Charmed to Blessed” he tells a story that you will long remember as he calls us to “the community of the unuseful.” In the telling about our New Testament friend Gaius and the odd, diverse community under Roman rule of which he was a part, he describes them as “fragile.” He follows that with reflections on own ancestry and I found it very tender.
This lovely, thoughtful book offers plenty of well-researched information and teaches us much, even a bit, as we’ve noted, on AI and computer science, which is enlivened when he mentions his Roomba and how he sneakily alludes to a dishwasher as a computer. He observes a bit about the human-scale texture of our lives when we give ourselves over to automation. (Which is, by the way, one of the reasons we always reply with a personal note acknowledging orders here on line, trying in our small way to redeem the online buying experience, inefficient as that may seem.) Naturally, the book includes poignant stories (and some fun ones, for instance about his own bike riding habits and his driving habits as well.) In the second portion, Crouch offers “redemptive moves” — new postures and habits to “help us begin, right now, to live more fully human lives.” I am convinced that it just might. I am sure reading it will help us cope with — you’ll have to read it to get the full irony — “the loneliness of a personalized world.” For starters, he reminds us that we “do not have to accept our technology’s default settings.” They can be adapted “to serve a new and better set of purposes.”
As Andy so nicely invites us to move away from “ever-increasing isolation” and create homes “that become creative centers far more consequential than the refuges of consumption and leisure have let them become” he also pushes us to include the outcast, the unwell, the unproductive, the overlooked.
And he is hopeful:
The great news is that there are already examples of these redemptive moves — some seedlings, some saplings, some beginning to bear widespread fruit — and we all have a part to play in helping them grow.
Quiet and reflective as it may be, finally, The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationships in a Technological World is not a gentleman’s armchair treatise. It is a reformational manifesto, calling us to renewal, change, redemptive efforts, to become agents of the shalom God wills for us all. Or at least a bit more sane in this fast-paced, digital world. It is a wise and wonderful book.
Alan Jacobs is one of the prominent essayists of our time, and knows a thing or two about the implications of our shift to machines in the middle of modernity. (Read his spectacular Year of Our Lord: 1943 for a particularly in-depth study of what five important Christian thinkers were thinking about these very things.) Here he says this is Andy’s best book yet:
The Life We’re Looking For is, and this is saying something, Andy Crouch’s best book: a deeply moving meditation on the human need to find true personhood, which means, among other things, to know as we are known. Strong and cogent critiques of Mammon’s empire–which, as Crouch shows, is where we live–are not unheard of, but a book that goes this deeply into the heart of things, into the heart of God, is a pearl of great price. — Alan Jacobs, author of How to Think and Breaking Bread with the Dead
Listen to Tish Harrison Warren, who writes so well about so much:
As I read this breathtaking book, I was surprised to find myself tearing up often, not because it is a book about tragedy or loss, but because Andy Crouch, perhaps more than any other writer of our day, perceives and names the deepest and most vulnerable longings of the human heart. The Life We’re Looking For describes the confusion and contradictions of our cultural moment in clear and resonant ways and, more important, offers hope that we might find a beautiful way of living amidst them. – Tish Harrison Warren, author of Liturgy of the Ordinary and Prayer in the Night
The Flag, The Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened Bill McKibben (Henry Holt & Company) $27.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.39
I raved about this in the June 23, 2022 BookNotes, a column I was proud of. Here are a few key excerpts, sharing why I think this book was so very good, such a great read, and one of my favorites of 2022.
The format of this memoir is, obviously, in three big parts. But first, why do I say “quasi-memoir”? I’ll leave aside if that is even a word, but the point is made clear in the beginning when McKibben wryly notes that the best memoirs have drama and adventure and pathos and since he grew up in a pretty ordinary, middle-class, stable family, was dealt a good hand and has had a fairly uninteresting life, his memoir, such as it is, is going to be more social history than gut-wrenching autobiography.
McKibben is a prolific author of great renown, actually, and he not only is a professor of note at Middlebury College in Vermont but has founded several environmental organizations. He has travelled the world. His campaigns to do MLK-type mass civil disobedience to try to stop dangerously polluting pipelines and his mobilizing even against the Obama White House is, frankly, quite thrilling and would be, for most, drama enough for several lifetimes, so he’s being a bit demure in suggesting that his life doesn’t have enough angst for a full-on memoir. Maybe that will come later.
For now, though, he uses this storytelling format of recalling moments and eras of his life as a window to see other, bigger things. He has an agenda and it is to illuminate much about the last fifty years of US history and how patriotism, religion, and our consumerist way of life (rooted as we are in suburbs and automobiles) have shaped our culture and the world’s climate, how these things have themselves changed in recent decades, and need now to be reimagined and refined if we are going to rise to the occasion of being faithful in this day and age. That he is finally getting at how to more urgently and effectively mobilize to lower our carbon output and mitigate the disastrous climate change (of which he is an expert) should not surprise anyone who knows him. That he would do so with antidote and charm and a lovely survey of his own patriotism and faith, while not exactly surprising, is a writerly delight and makes for one tremendous book. I am not alone in suggesting this may be his best book yet. (And I’ve got The Bill McKibben Reader by my bedside!)
“Bill McKibben has written a great American memoir, using the prism of his own life to reflect on the most important dynamics in our society. Bill McKibben’s writing is poignant, engrossing and revealing. His message is a clarion call for a generation to understand what happened to their American Dream, and to fight for our common future.” — Heather McGhee, author of The Sum of Us: How Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together
This is a fabulous couple of breezy chapters – not long — where McKibben shares his own passion for US history, especially colonial history. You see, he grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, and worked as a teen as one of those New England historical interpreters, wearing his tricorn hat and waxing eloquent about the shot heard round the world and the nearby Battle of Bunker Hill and Paul Revere’s famous ride. He knows that stuff cold and his retelling of it is vital, and with enough local color and backstory to make it captivating. In memoir fashion, he is telling us of his telling of it (a standard colonial-era joke, playing the board game Risk while waiting for the next crowd to arrive, his “half hour spiel” to “maybe one family with a couple of bored teenagers, maybe an entire bus of Japanese tourists” and holding out that hat” to collect tips, which was his summer job pay.) This respected scholar and activist-leader and New Yorker writer who is known around the world was a pimply faced kid wearing that three-sided cap and earning tips by sharing his passion for the great US revolution. I loved it, hearing of his love for our country and its founding story.
As McKibben puts it, “I came by my patriotism honestly.” He writes about the account the guides would deliver and the lasting influence of the basic importance of the story,
It was a clean and brave story, and, as I say, it has informed me ever since. The valor of standing up to unjust and arbitrary power seemed to me its clear and obvious moral. Indeed in the years that followed, as I read more deeply in American history, the importance of that stand sank further in.
I want to talk about that – to tell how and why the Revolution came to seem so important to me. I want to draw the picture in as bold lines as possible. Because soon enough the picture is going to get much more shaded, much less noble. But not quite yet.
Here it gets even more interesting and provides good instruction for many of us. He tells briefly about the important work of the 1619 Project and what new insights it brings to our understanding of our nation’s early history. He is embarrassed that his teenage job holding forth about the revolutionary years in Lexington didn’t have him telling the truth about the indigenous people nor the role of enslaved people (or black freemen like Crispus Attucks, say.) He ponders which is worse, that they knowingly ignored the unpleasant fact or if they just didn’t think to include them – an example of the generous but candid self-awareness that gives this book much of its appeal. That is, it is neither a white wash or a diatribe. It’s just a good man trying to say what he’s learned to be true and ponder its significance for us all today in our own cultural moment.
It is, as I’ve implied, earnest and fair and wise. Terry Tempest Williams (whose most recent, luminous writings are collected in Erosion: Essays of Undoing) described McKibben as an “everyday hero” and says the book is plainspoken, direct, and conversational. His candid and well-informed critique of the right-wing pushback against the 1619 Project is worth the price of the book; it is not overly zealous and it is not unfair. But on just a few pages and with a few key examples he shows why we need the insights of black and native peoples and why their stories need to be part of our national story. I’ve read a bit on the controversy and think McKibben is sensible and right; I’m surprised that some writers I respect have fretted about the Project – I just don’t get it, and so appreciated McKibben’s sensible generosity. It is interesting how he gets a bit passionate and names what needs to be named, but comes back to the memories of his own early patriotism formed there in the Lexington Green.
(There is one paragraph unlocking a racially-consequential line in the famous poem about Paul Revere that will take your breath away if you do not know about it; I did not, and McKibben’s discovery is stunning.)
There is a pivotal event that happened in the town when he was a kid and I won’t spoil the show by saying anything about it, but I want to say for the record that I so admire his parents and was very glad for this fascinating glimpse into small town New England politics in the late 1960s. Kudos to local historians and small town storytellers who write booklets and make tapes and keep records and oral accounts alive in local libraries and historical societies. McKibben comes back to this episode throughout the book, but I don’t want to ruin it by saying more.
There is a part that explains, too, about the economic realities that emerged from our troubling history of white privilege. Books like Richard Rothstein’s must-read The Color of Law, Dorothy Brown’s scholarly treatise The Whiteness of Wealth, Randall Robinson’s The Debt and Ta- Nehisiha Coates’s stunning 2014 call for reparations are mentioned and it becomes clear that McKibben’s commitments to the flag, seen in his telling of his pride in raising Old Glory with his Boy Scout troop – a lovely paragraph that made me smile — are now deeply tied to true truths about economic injustice stemming from a history of institutional racism. What the hell happened? This book explains it as clearly and succinctly as any I’ve read.
I needn’t say much more about his early formation as a proud, if now sobered, US citizen, but I will note this: I’m inclined to protest, or, these days, at least compliment those who do, when things go haywire. But the sort of honest lament McKibben names about our sinfulness doesn’t mean we cannot affirm the good ideas and good things that emerged from our founding as a nation. McKibben’s reflections on the flag and proper patriotism are solid, balanced, and, I think, very important.
Beth and I were thrilled even by the first page or so of this section where McKibben describes the character and tone of his youth group (often held in “fellowship hall”) and church camp and mission/service trip and endlessly singing songs like “Kum Ba Yah” and “Day by Day” from Godspell. (Does anybody out there remember “Pass It On”?) These were the early and mid-1970s and kids didn’t sing “praise and worship” songs like they do today. His testimony of the value of his UCC church was as wonderful to read as, well, some of the scenes in Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads novel that I devoured last summer. His earnest mainline faith, his reading of the gospels, his telling of his own faith journey is simply delightful.
Those that have followed the nature writer, environmentalist, anti-global warming activist, and social critic, have known of his faith. He writes for Sojo and had a book published years ago (on Job, actually) by the prominent religious publisher Eerdmans out of Grand Rapids. But to hear him talk about his Sunday school teachers and his spiritual concerns as a young adult is terrific and encouraging. Importantly, his description is not offered only for the purpose of literary memoir but to make an observation, to testify, about the positive formative nature of much mainline Protestantism and the social ethic that emerged from this broad, non-fundamentalist youth ministry which so influenced him. In fact, this piece is, in many ways, a eulogy for a certain sort of healthy civil religion that allowed mainline Protestant public intellectuals (from Reinhold Niebuhr, say, to Martin Luther King to Dorothy Day) to have influence over the discourse and values of American culture.
I might want to push back in conversation about his take on mainline Protestantism although, given his framing of it – in the 60s we had Tillich and Barth and King and the brilliant William Sloan Coffin as public representatives of Jesus and in more recent times we have had the Jerry Falwells, Franklin Graham, and Trump sycophants that seem to care little for the Bible or Jesus – it is hard to argue. Hipster evangelicals mock “Kum Ba Yah” (as did Donald Trump, for that matter) but if singing that around the church camp campfire gave us the likes of Bill McKibben, I’ll take it.
McKibben is earnest, also, about his college years and it is a great grace that he sought out thoughtful Christian leaders while a student at Harvard. He is never proud or smug about this but it is clear that he was mentored, in part, by the black, Republican (and gay) preacher there, Peter Gomes. McKibben is nearly evangelistic when he wishes others would read Rev. Gomes’s book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News?
There is little doubt that Christianity has been a hugely important influence, for better or worse, in both forming and fraying our social fabric in the last few decades. No social commentator can ignore the role of faith communities, or what we sometimes called “the religious landscape.” It is helpful that McKibben here shares both personally and more broadly, about his sense of how the Christian faith ought to be an influence for the common good. It is all so very interesting, informative and at times beautiful.
As in the previous section, he refrains from academic footnotes, but there is a fabulously interesting essay about sources and book recommendations in a final epilogue. His passion for early US history is evident and his suggestions there offer a year’s worth of reading, at least, starting, not least, with the important work of Gordon Wood (for instance, his early The Radicalism of the American Revolution.)
For the section “The Cross” he thanks his friend Diana Butler Bass (a fine church historian and contemporary writer who I mention often in BookNotes) and he commends her on-line newsletter “The Cottage.” He names the magisterial collection, The Future of Mainline Protestantism in American, edited by James Hudnut-Beumler and Mark Silk, the fabulous edited IVP volume by Mark Labberton called Still Evangelical? and he highly recommends Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise. I was glad to see that he pointed readers to Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s must-read Jesus and John Wayne — again, a book that we very, very highly recommend. One would almost think he’s reading BookNotes. Ha.
THE STATION WAGON
I suppose it makes sense that McKibben uses the station wagon – indeed, one that his family owned and for which he has great affection to this day – as a symbol of the consumerism and social inequity caused by the rise of the American suburbs. I mentioned the rowdy critique of the ugliness and ecological harms of suburbia described with such wit and zeal by James Howard Kuenstler and McKibben stands in his tradition, I suppose, without any of his cynicism or rudeness. (I kept wishing for a quote from The Geography of Nowhere or Home from Nowhere.) Happily suburban bred and raised, McKibben realizes that the rise of individual homes, and the station wagons that transported the (mostly white) kids across this land in those glory days of the American Dream, became detrimental to the planet and here his passion about climate change begins to appear.
We knew it would, of course. He’s been writing about this since his 1989 breakout bestseller The End of Nature — inspired, as I recall, by his colleague Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth — and the influential Eaarth that came out in 2010. In the previous sections of The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon he exposed how the lovely boyhood and middle class, churched upbringing contributed to a distorted understanding of our society and how things work in the world, but here – oh my. His reporting continues to shine; his prose riveting and his insight brilliant. The relationship of the flag and the cross are coming into focus and much of it is about, well, not exactly the station wagon, but the money accrued from the homes where those station wagons were parked. I know housing bubbles and interest rates and zoning battles may not seem like the sexiest topics for an entertaining nonfiction read, but trust me.
McKibben has lived this stuff, but he has also researched it well, drawing on the definitive and the most fascinating works, such as Meg Jacobs, who he thanks, for her Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s.
Here, particularly, is where McKibben’s writing style makes this complicated stuff accessible – he is able to tell a story or two, bringing in a big picture analysis, and name the need for some kind of repair – all while keeping the prose light, the information interesting, the story compelling.
You see, he is showing the ways in which owning one’s home naturally creates wealth; generational wealth. Yes, certain suburban cul de sac lifestyles can cause increased pollution and alienation from place and creation, and yes, ice caps are melting due to our materialistic extravagance. But that is only the most calamitous of the implications. Along the way we got racist policies (like redlining and the gross injustice in disallowing black World War II vets access to the benefits of the GI Bill, educational opportunity, lines of credit, jobs.) Deeper wealth discrepancies developed and the economic injustices based on the rise of the US suburbs (and subsequent home ownership and banking) is damning. That he isn’t even more emphatic and prophetic in his denunciation is admirable. The social evils are so obvious in his telling, the book could have gone off the rails with screeds and anger and extremist proposals. He verges on it, but he returns to his town, the ups and downs, the good and bad, rooted in a good family and good faith and decent folks who mostly want to make a difference. The “Station Wagon” section, like the others, is a fair-minded, honest critique. It is the kind of analysis that, if widely heard – that is, if this book sells well and is discussed widely – could become a compelling game-changer. We hope you consider it and order a few. It is, no doubt, one of my favorite books of 2022.
The Flag, The Cross, and the Station Wagon is a great read, and much of it is really quite entertaining. For instance, what a blast to hear his own story of the famous solar panels installed on the White House by Jimmy Carter and famously taken down, out of spite or ideology stupidity, by Ronald Reagan. (I recall that Ed Meese called them “a joke.”) McKibben actually knew a bit about those panels as they were rescued from some Washington warehouse and ended up being used effectively at a small college in Maine. Bill tells the rest of the story, including a large Chinese business startup making more of these panels, inspired by one they got from the college in Maine, and how he got some students to create some holy trouble when they brought some of the remaining panels — still working good as new — as a gift to Obama whose people refused to meet with them, let alone put them up on the White House roof.
In retrospect, McKibben writes, sharing his disillusionment, “it was pretty clear why Obama wanted nothing to do with those solar panels: they were tainted by their association with Carter. The 1980 election, thirty years later, still dominated our politics.” Yup.
There is a final piece to The Flag, The Cross, and the Station Wagon which I will only mention briefly, but it is his big altar call / patriotic ending. It is hinted at in the story about taking college kids on the road trip – stopping for PR events along the way – to the White House to give the historic Carter-era solar panels back to the Obamas. He mentions that he truly felt bad causing the disillusionment of the youth he had brought along. It was a tell-tale line in passing, but McKibben – as the subtitle notes – is graying. And this is how he ends the book, with some remarkable stuff about how older people can become mentors for younger ones, can encourage and fund them, how our more experienced citizens can mobilize alongside the idealistic younger leaders. He has (of course he has) started a great organization to help facilitate that and it is already going strong. Check out his group, Third Act.
Mr. McKibben’s last, short chapter is inspiring, entitled “People of a Certain Age.” He writes about caring for kids and grandkids and is encouraged that many older people are ready to act differently in their public duties, as well. He notes that “many of us are now emerging into our latter years with skills, with more than our share of resources, and with grandchildren. Surely that might give us the capacity and the reason to help.”
Evangelical Anxiety: A Memoir Charles Marsh (HarperOne) $27.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.39
I started out my BookNotes review last June with this:
I want to start this BookNotes edition telling about a book that blew me away and which I am now reading for the second time. It is rare when I make time for an immediate repeat but this book was so engaging – that is, it was very well-written in a way that was artful and richly-crafted but was equally inviting and enjoyable. Not every book that is written with literary verve and gorgeous prose is, frankly, still that interesting. This, though, a memoir of a journey in and coming out of a southern sort of fundamentalism, and finding a way through the hurts and hang-ups of that milieu, is a page-turner. My mind is reeling thinking of a dozen things to say about it as there is so much going on in this breathtaking story.
The least I can do to honor this extraordinarily honest and fascinating story is to name it as a Best Book of 2022. It was certainly one of my favorite reads, even if some of it left me pondering. I suppose that is the sign of a good book, eh? Kudos!
Evangelical Anxiety by Charles Marsh is some of what I might have expected in a memoir from him, knowing a bit about Dr. Marsh’s journey and scholarly interests from his previous books. I am not sure I can describe simply his current, lively, Episcopalian kind of mere Christianity, but his conservative, Southern evangelical past is the swamp he has slogged through. As a Bonhoeffer expert (his second Bonhoeffer book, Strange Glory, is an essential one), a scholar of and advocate for racial justice (and author of several excellent books on these exact themes, including one co-written with John Perkins called Welcoming Justice) and Director at the Project for Lived Theology at Charlottesville’s UVA, I assumed his story surely included some shift away from evangelicalism and distancing himself from the ugly compromises made by many white evangelicals in the last decades as they’ve drifted from gospel clarity and focused increasingly on right wing politics. When former evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr say that Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with their values voting, what is a somewhat socially progressive evangelical Christian to do? Needing to disavow the weirdness of a shallow God and Country sort of so-called evangelicalism has produced a number of memoirs and a number of serious studies about the value and wisdom – for the sake of the gospel! – to no longer use the phrase evangelical. Other books in this recent genre are less about the current state of the evangelical brand, and are artful tellings of the tales of living through what was often a toxic sort of legalism. There’s a lot of deconstruction type narratives with a lot of anxiety.
We have commended, for instance, the much-discussed Where the Light Fell by Philip Yancey as a gripping look at the boyhood and young adulthood and ongoing faith journey set in this complicated and sometimes religiously harmful subculture. As any good memoir, Yancey’s book allows us to look over his shoulder and into his life as he navigated his broken family and harsh faith – it’s an entertaining if intense read; I often say that well-written memoirs provide a reading experience akin to reading great fiction. In some cases, one could hardly make up such astonishing stuff. Let’s face it, regardless of what one thinks about or what relationship one has with a given religious subculture, it makes for great literature.
This is a long way to get to a major point about the exquisitely written story, Evangelical Anxiety. It is, in fact, mostly not about the somewhat predictable question of how a smart young scholar and person of conscience with devout commitments to Christ can abide being a evangelical, given how grubby that phrase has become these days. I was wrong to assume he was talking about that anxiety. (Although not as a memoir, Marsh did explore this already in 2007 with an acclaimed Oxford University Press book, Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity.) With Charles’s masterful writing chops and his extraordinary mind and learning, it would be fabulous to have a book about his worries, struggles, disagreements, cognitive dissonance, and theological ruminations, about his evangelical past. However, I was wrong about this being mostly that kind of a story, really. It is, in fact, about his real anxiety disorder. In this stunning report that reveals more than I expected, we learn about Marsh’s years of psychotherapy to cope with his nearly debilitating panic attacks and something akin to depression.
Within the opening paragraphs we realize how very well written Evangelical Anxiety is and what an artful reading experience it will be. Wow. Soon enough, we realize that even as some of the themes are what we might first expect – a strict religious background giving way to a more expansive faith, the struggle to understand for oneself the spiritual life in the college and young adult years, the not uncommon journey from sparred down fundamentalist preaching services to a more liturgical (Episcopalian) worship — we soon realize that coping with real anxiety is much of what this book is about. And, well. What a story it is!
You should know this: Mr. Marsh wrote an earlier autobiographical account of his growing up years and it focused on an exceptional episode in his young life, a life-changing season at his father’s church, and while Evangelical Anxiety is not a sequel or second part of his life story, the remarkable stuff told in that previous one, does inform this new one. He explains those years briefly since it comes up over and again.
In The Last Days: A Son’s Story Of Sin And Segregation At The Dawn Of A New South, written in 2001, Marsh tells about how his father, a good preacher and thoughtful Baptist pastor, realized that there were violent KKK guys in his church, even on his leadership council. The Last Days tells of their horrible crimes, his father coming to terms with it. Like many Protestant pastors in those hard years in the South, Reverend Marsh was not an active anti-segregationist nor grossly bigoted. He was, perhaps, the sort of leader who would have realized that King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail was, in part, addressed to him. He was a good man and a good father, if conventional in that Southern Baptist setting and slow to come around to the courage needed to confront the likes of Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Mississippi KKK who lived near the Marsh’s in Laurel, Mississippi.
The violence in the town, aimed at Blacks, of course, was in the air, and Marsh was not unaware of this fearful texture to daily life. But when his father removed the men of the KKK (and their families) from his church, the violence was aimed at his family as well. Young Marsh — athletic, popular, strong — couldn’t sleep at nights.
In a nutshell – and Marsh describes it with considerable beauty and pathos and understanding and keen insight based on his own decades of studying the civil rights movement in the American south – this consequence, this violence and fear of violence, is the origin of Marsh’s own crippling anxiety attacks.
Yes, he reads literature and theology by authors outside of his evangelical world in high-school and then college; yes he ends up at Harvard Divinity School after Gordon College with some nearly anti-Christian teachers, or so it sounds. Yes, there is this refining and reframing of his faith and church life (perhaps akin to what some today call deconstruction) but all of that, or so Evangelical Anxiety suggests, is colored by the trauma of growing up in a repressive fundamentalist subculture, and of coming of age in a time and way that might suggest his fears are a fallout from his father’s fidelity to the gospel. Charles does not cheaply pat his father and mother on their backs and does not portray himself as collateral damage from their small, if belated, part in the civil rights struggle. But he knows the cost of discipleship in his bones. It drives him to seek help.
And this – oh my – is where the book gets even more captivating. He ends up (to make a colorfully long story of his circuitous path a bit shorter) in Freudian psychotherapy.
Think what you will about the appropriateness of a Biblically-trained evangelical young man heading to the couch to talk about his sexual desires and his mother and such, it is at the heart of this story. In a few spots, the book admits to Marsh’s own awareness of the irony of this (he knows all about Jay Adams and the anti-Freudian teaching from conservative evangelical thinkers who propose more overtly Biblical counseling; golly, he had a meeting with Francis Schaeffer when he was a teen as he sought guidance and direction. The story is made that much more fascinating knowing just how unlikely it was for this young man to take up such therapy.
As a broke young scholar with a new wife, feeling drawn into therapy, he ends up in a rare situation of doing analysis with a new shrink in a nearly free program in Baltimore. For those who know anything about this, you won’t be surprised that it goes on, almost daily, for years. Some of his breakthroughs and insights are disclosed here although the book never devolves into a mere account of his id and superego. It’s a great memoir, not a document of his therapy. Nonetheless, working on the couch has been a significant part of his life in coping with his disorders, and, well, there it is, written about with candor and wit. It is sharp and at times funny.
As Jemar Tisby puts it:
Marsh probes the realms of piety and mental health with engrossing prose and naked honesty, showing us how the sacred can be found in literature and on the therapist’s couch. Anyone curious about a better way to navigate mental health and belief will find hope and inspiration in this.
I do not think I have ever read a book like this. The glimpse into a professional and religious life in which debilitating panic attacks and gripping depression and unusual ticks and so many concerns are described in such detail (without being overly dramatic or maudlin or self-pitying) is rare and so very interesting. I was stunned when I read early on in the book about his first attack. (Sorry for the spoiler alert — I hadn’t seen it coming. It is, no matter, an amazing piece of writing.) If you care about how some people cope with psychological disorder and their subsequent physiological consequences, this book will be illuminating. (Granted, he is from an educated class, a world-famous scholar, and award-winning author and the book is a memoir, not a guidebook, of his particular experience as a professor, academic, writer, and theologian.) I do not think it is a bad thing to say Evangelical Anxiety will be entertaining, a good read, as they say. There were descriptions and well-crafted sentences that just made me shake my head in wonder and there were episodes described that made me laugh out loud. Publisher’s Weekly called it an “endearing and rewardingly unusual account of mental illness and faith.”
Patricia Hampl, author of The Art of the Wasted Day says,
“A harrowing book but, weirdly and wonderfully, also a hoot. I kept laughing aloud – and then sighing. A remarkable achievement.”
But, again: Mr. Marsh’s story unfolds against the backdrop of considerable anxiety around the religious questions of leaving behind a strict version of faith; it is, as more than one reviewer observed, connected to the questions about the relationships of the so-called secular and sacred; the split between body and soul, desire and duty. As in the Yancey memoir, moving away from the faith and very worldview of one’s youth, especially if it was a demanding subculture defined as over-and-against all others, can be painful and can create relational ruptures. Fortunately, Marsh’s parents were not toxic or harmful and some of his faith experiences (and the webs and networks of relationships he experiences) were perhaps less caustic that the caricature of this harsh setting might conjure; still, getting severely paddled by high school coaches and terribly shamed by youth group leaders was part of what was considered ordinary in that time in that place.
As Marsh comes of age in the 1970s there is cultural change in the wind, not unrelated to the seismic shifts begun in the 1960s. “The Times They are a Changin’” Dylan sang and the words were prescient. I feel it in my gut as I type it, knowing how I myself snarled out the words with my own cheap guitar in the ‘70s. Marsh reports well how one person and family – including his beloved wife K – negotiated these changes in these times as they moved into their early married years of the 1980s and on. Again, I could not put this book down and was very deeply moved by it all; I can at least say that anyone who is aware of the nature of Protestant life during the end of the 20th century and into the new millennium will find it fascinating.
We need you, dear and gentle reader, to know something else about this stunning memoir. It is honest. Marsh is exceedingly candid about his fears and his failures. Do I need to issue a trigger warning? Perhaps. He is candid, particularly, about his sexuality and, given the way purity culture was made into a fetish in some evangelical circles and how the Biblical teachings not to have sex before marriage were made exceptionally clear and linked to the looming threat of hell in his subculture, it is no wonder, I suppose, that he, uh, had issues.
A scene in Evangelical Anxiety of Charles and his then girlfriend reading wildly together while house-sitting in the home of Elizabeth Elliot of all people (look her up if you don’t know) is so erotically charged I don’t know how they remained chaste. In any case, there is some very frank talk in parts of the book. As a reader with a pretty wide palate for “language” in stories and who doesn’t think that human sexuality needs to be off limits for writers telling about their life story, I still have to say that some of this felt gratuitous. I think an editor should have put her foot down a time or two, even if Publisher’s Weekly enjoyed the “bawdy” parts.
Nonetheless, the book really does need to explore this stuff: it is an integral part of the story. It was the heavy-handed sexual repression combined with the ubiquitous racial violence that helped shape the psyche of a man who realized he could not manage a life in these modern times, as a faithful person, without unpacking it. And, so, he goes there, sharing without shame some intimate details of his life and not so unusual desires.
The very discerning James K.A. Smith called it “at once transgressive and faithful.“ Perhaps that’s it — both transgressive and faithful.
Other early readers also have raved about this long-awaited memoir by Mr. Marsh. We know it may not be for everyone but it is a major book by an important voice, and it was very difficult to put down. I’m happy to tell you about it and hope you’ll send us an order.
There is vivid storytelling, there are remarkable recollections of important stuff, and there is some broad-brush cultural analysis, placing his own journey in the context of the fundamentalist and evangelical world of the past generation, up to and including his own worship experiences today.
The opening page describing in smooth detail the crisp khaki trousers and brand name shirt of the Anglican worship leader presiding at worship, the tasteful praise songs, and the shockingly weird sermon, was so well written and deftly designed, shifting to a line at the end of the page that made tears well up in my eyes, alerted me that this was going to be one great read.
There is also great tenderness in Evangelical Anxiety. Marsh writes about taking his kids to a Christian camp. He describes his love for his mother, including the solace she offered during his fearful nights as a boy. He is deeply remorseful when he has hurt his wife. He struggles with how to relate his own scholarship – he writes about Bonhoeffer, after all – with his own practice of lived discipleship. He holds what he knows to be true about the world, its racism and violence, and is learning how to carry on as a sane and happy person. In a simple passage about finding joy in good things in God’s creation, the spirituality of the ordinary, so to speak, he mentions how his friend, the evangelical, black leader John Perkins likes blue berries. I got a lump in my throat, just such a lovely little line about a man who has suffered much and experienced great fame, Charles’s friend. Many who pick up this book and enter this story will also be struck by Marsh’s great love for literature and the often beautiful way he mentions novels and authors, his intimate relationship with their truths and artful pleasures. I so enjoyed reading about a man I respect and the books he loves and the authors who have informed him.
This is a bold, beautiful memoir, at once transgressive and faithful. Marsh embodies a theology with the courage to tackle the taboo, including depression and desire, in prose that is evocative and seductive. In the end, we learn that the most astounding grace is found in the God we can tell our secrets. — James K.A. Smith, Calvin University, editor in chief, Image, author of You Are What You Love and On the Road with Saint Augustine
Stories of My Life Katherine Paterson (Westminster/John Knox) $22.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $17.60
This. Yes — one of my favorite books of 2022.
I will never forget the spectacular talk the esteemed YA novelist gave at the 1998 Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing on the role of the imagination, the best of the keynotes that year, sandwiched between Elie Weisel and John Updike. In Stories of My Life, Patterson tells about that lecture, and staying in the Grand Rapids home of the legendary writer (and Calvin prof) Gary Schmidt for that weekend, when she got the phone call saying she won the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award. It is just one of the great, tender moments in her new book of memories, Stories of My Life. It is utterly magnificent, touching, and I found it captivating — a gentle but absolute page-turner!
I was very moved by this sprawling set of memories from her life, including what she has learned about parents and grandparents on her side of the family. We learn a bit about the colorful stories of her late husband — he was a Paterson (“with one t” she noticed, quickly) whose own father had very colorful years of, among other things, serving in World War One, being gassed, losing a leg, and being treated for TB. It is very nicely written with a calm and no-nonsense style. It was truly lovely, without being luminous, engaging without pretension. She says firmly in the beginning that it is not a memoir. It is, as the title sensibly proclaims, a set of stories from her life.
And what a life she has led. I can hardly say enough about this wonderful read about a wonderful Christian woman whose contribution to (and fame in) the world of contemporary children’s literature is nearly unsurmountable. She is, certainly, one of the great children’s writers of these times.
How can I persuade you to order this handsome volume full of entertaining and edifying stories of a life well lived? If you do not know that she was born in China (her parents were medical missionaries) who fled as a little one during the Japanese invasion, and who returned, only to be exiled again (mostly due to tensions with the communists that time) and you do not know that she herself was a Presbyterian missionary in Japan, if you do not know her moving stories like Bridge to Terabithia and her several nonfiction books about the role of the imagination and of faithful but not overtly religious storytelling, I hardly know where to begin. Any good library would have her many out of print children’s titles and now you can easily learn about her life and times.
Here are just a few fascinating and enjoyable moments you will encounter if you order Stories From My Life. I’m only scratching the surface — it is such a great read.
Firstly, you know you are in for a treat (and will be walking among the gods of stories) when you open the book to find a fabulous short intro by none other than Kate DiCamillo. She highlights a key moment of vulnerability in the narrative when she alerts us to Katherine’s story of being a child (home from the Chinese mission field, wearing second-hand clothing, a bit shy, and seemingly not welcomed into her new school) and not receiving any Valentine Day cards in school. Kate notes that Katherine writes that she told her mother many years later about this and she was, of course, aghast. Mother wondered why Katherine never wrote about the hurtful incident. As DiCamillo recalls, Katherine “answered her by saying, “All my books are about the day I didn’t get any valentines.”
And then, in her own great gift, the great Kate DiCamillo says:
This book is a valentine.
It is Katherine’s Valentine to her parents and to her children. It is her Valentine to life and to stories.
It is her valentine to us.
Kate Dicamillo also has badgered Katherine to include the story of Maude, a relative of her grandfather’s who was the last person to kiss Robert E. Lee, who, in turn kissed little Katherine. DiCamillo loved the story so, she threatened to write it up herself if Katherine didn’t write it down. So, yes, here is the bit about Lee, although, personally, I enjoyed the episode about her brother and the bones of Lee’s famous horse, Traveller. You will have to read it to discover that yourself.
The second foreword is so endearing and masterfully written and insightful that I’ve read it twice — it is by writer Nancy Price Graff and she tells of the twosome’s weekly lunch at a diner in their town in Vermont. For over twenty years the women have grown old together in their regular Naugahyde booth. Paterson has written 40-some books in fifty years, performing what she calls “the fragile magic” of spinning stores for children and young adults. But she doesn’t talk about her writing or much about her fame.
“Week after week,” Graff writes,
…one of the great storytellers in the world has told me the story of her exceptional life. Diners no more than three feet away, deep into their meatloaf, are oblivious to the presence of the former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, the winner of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, and the Hans Christian Andersen Award. It would never cross their minds that the gray-haired woman sitting two booths over, wearing a turtleneck and a pink sweater, might have had dinner last week with the librarian of Congress or the empress of Japan.
The stories are not exactly chronological and in fact, starts with a good piece responding to “Three Frequently Asked Questions.” I was hooked. In one of these early pages she tells of being at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia. (Now known as Union, it was started when there was a need for theological education for women headed to the mission field or into educational tasks since the Presbyterian churches were not yet ordaining women so women were not as likely to attend a seminary like Princeton, say.) One of her favorite professors stopped her in the hall — he has been reading her exam —and said in made her wonder if she ever thought of being a writer.
Now I, the lifelong reader, the summa cum laude graduate in English literature, knew what great writing was, so how could Dr. Little imagine, on the basis of an essay on an exam, that I could be a writer? ‘No,’ I said primly. I had no intention of being a writer because I wouldn’t want to add another mediocre writer to the world.
Well, the prof pushed back, wondering if perhaps that was exactly what God was calling her to do. Katherine tell us simply:
It was hard to imagine that God needed a lot more mediocre writers in the world, so I didn’t become a writer or movie star. I became a missionary.
Her first piece of writing, by the way, was a great Sunday school book for middle school age kids published in 1966, Who Am I?, which is still in print from Eerdmans. She was by then home from her Japanese mission experience (1957 – 1961), had married John whom she had met at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and was teaching in Pennington NJ, while John attended Princeton. By ’66 they had moved to Tacoma Park, MD.
One of the opening questions in that long opening chapter was “How does it feel to be famous?” Children and others ask this at book readings and interviews and it is a question she is not fully comfortable with. She tends to be shy, although has learned to be brave. She tells of being at very fancy dinners at a head table and being ignored. She has been shunted here and there on book tours and speaking engagements and sometimes mistreated. She reports that she’d come home whining to her husband that she is not treated “like a human being.” This reveals both her insecurities, it seems, and her life’s overarching principle — that people, made in God’s image, should be treated with understanding and kindness. This matter of being uncared for comes up over and over and I found it quite gripping. Near the end of Stories… she admits that she wrote The Great Gilly Hopkins after pondering a question of how it would feel to be considered disposable.
The Paterson’s have adopted two children, one from Hong Kong and one an indigenous Native baby. She and her husband were great parents, it seems. They have been foster parents, too, and it was painfully difficult. “After The Great Gilly Hopkins was published, I realized, belatedly, that I had put two foster children in the story. I might not have been Gilly. I might well have been William Ernest.”
She was an honorable child, usually, it seems, but playful and adventurous (and a good reader, bored with early school book readers.) There are stories of family in China, and of being back in the US, a “home” she did not know, of course. (Today we call this phenomenon being “third culture kids.”) Her parents loved her dearly, even though there were harrowing times of her dad being on Chinese riverboats trying to smuggle life-saving medicines and supplies to Christian hospitals for the Chinese people. There were times when he’d to travel undetected for remarkable distances, keeping away from the Japanese invaders and the young communists and certain military officials. What a story!
(Her parent’s backgrounds were fascinating themselves. She is somehow distantly related to Mark Twain. After WW I her father was cared for by a Mrs. Lathrop Brown, whose husband was a special assistant to the Department of Interior, high up in the Wilson administration. She had been a New York debutante and her husband had been Franklin Roosevelt’s roommate at Harvard. As a disabled veteran, he was fortunate to have her as a caregiver and she stayed in touch with her parents until she died. In fact, she sent boxes of children’s books to little Katherine in China. When they were exiled from China and spent an awful time in 1938 as refugees, she had arranged for a chauffeur to meet them at the boat in New York harbor.)
Katherine’s time in Japan is explained and there are a few memorable stories. It doesn’t take much —she’s working that ‘fragile magic’ — and I was in tears at a going away party which had a Japanese pastor reading Ephesians 2:14 (a personal favorite, about the dividing walls being broken down in Christ) and Paul’s revolutionary words in Galatians 3:28. It is especially powerful knowing that Katherine had admitted that she had trained to return to her native China. Going there on mission was not to be and when she was assigned to Japan — the feared and despised enemy that had attacked China (and perpetrated atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking in 1937) — it caused turmoil in her soul. Of course she went and then, knowing the language and caring for the people, a Japanese pastor says,
Katherine is young, I am old. She is a woman, I am a man. She is American. I am Japanese. When she was the child of missionaries in China, I was a colonel in the occupying army in Manchuria. She comes from the Presbyterian tradition, I come from the Pentecostal. The world would think it is impossible that she and I should love each other. But Christ has broken down the barriers that should divide us. We are one in Christ Jesus.
After her own sermonizing just a bit, she notes how the influence of Japan is evident in all her work. “My first three novels are set there, as well as the beautiful picture book The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks, whose illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillard garnered a Boston-Globe-Horn Book Award.” She has translated some Japanese folk tales, as well, illustrated by the award-winning Suekichi Akab. She quietly notes that she wouldn’t be the writer she is if it were not for her four years in ministry there. “To be loved by people you thought hated you is an experience I wish everyone could have.”
She loved her job as a teacher, then, first in 1955 reading aloud to poor rural kids in a one-room school in Virginia. Oooh, was she irritated that these kids were all said to be dumb because they supposedly had done poorly on IQ tests. These kids were not dumb! (And she henceforth distrusted standardized tests.) She doesn’t think she was much of a teacher but she gave them good experiences (including a trip to the National Zoo in DC that, trust me, was a great episode to read about.)
I choked back tears when she tells of going to visit the little school in Lovettsville years later while passing through the region. It was now a community center so she found the newer building. School had just closed but teachers were there, cleaning up as they do on their last day. Katherine marveled at the well-stocked library. Nobody had time, really, to chat until it became evident that she used to teach there and some old-timer had some recollections of people she had known decades beforehand they realized who she was. Oh, were they pleased, confident that Bridge to Terabithia’s Lark Creek was based on Lovettsville. The current sixth grade teacher said that he tells their students that each year and they never believe him. She assured him that he was right.
She also taught for a while in a Methodist boys school, teaching the Bible. There’s a great story there about a boy complaining about how all the kings of the Old Testament seemed to be getting killed and how irrelevant that all was. Before she could even answer, the classroom door was thrown open. “The history master was standing in the doorway, ashen faced. ‘The president has been shot,’ he said.” She comments,
Without a word, we filed out into the common area where there was a large television set and watched in horror until Walter Cronkite finally announced the news that Kennedy was dead. The boys didn’t try to argue about the stupidity of the ancient Hebrew ever again.
This is a typical passage — casually reported yet full of pathos, poignant, even, and sort of sly. There are some fun laughs in the book —her young married life was hard and she had four young children (two of two different races) and yet she and her husband made do and did well. It’s a glorious part of the book, hearing about their married life and her efforts as a parent.
One of the most moving stories comes at about page 270 as she tells of her son, David, finally getting a good friend; Katherine had been diagnosed with cancer and worried about her children, but David, especially, needed a good pal. And then one day he met Lisa. Who — to cut a tender story short — was suddenly killed, struck by lightning at Bethany Beach. This was, of course, the genesis of the tragic story of a boy/girl friendship and the way youth cope with death that became Bridge to Terabithia. (You may recall that in that story they read The Chronicles of Narnia together.) She hardly wanted to finish writing the story and tells of putting off doing the chapter when Leslie Burke would die.
And to think Bridge to Terabithia has been maligned and banned! To think we have been criticized for carrying it!
It is fascinating how Katherine Paterson has often written about serious things. Her story of struggling with her first novel, The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, comes to mind. It is nicely told and she tells us much, but she offhandedly observes that she was doing a juvenile novel set in 12th century Japan (with a storyline of ancient civil strife, poverty, and which included trafficking and a brothel) at the same time that the nation’s number one best seller of adult fiction was a calming, almost silly narrative about a seagull named Jonathan. If you are a baby boomer, you know what she means.
There are fun things to learn while reading Stories of My Life. She has a whole chapter called “Pets” and it involves more than their beloved dogs. Yes, the great Gilly Hopkins is named after Gerard Manley Hopkins. Jacob Have I Loved came out of thorny ground and a difficult time — her editor, the famous Virginia Buckley, had to push and pull to get her to develop it suitably. She missed the first Newbery Award press conference when a plane couldn’t land —Peter Spier was the only one who made it and he “single-handedly charmed the press and the American Library Association, melting the heart of blizzard-bound Chicago.” The story of what she allowed her kids to do with the first Newbery Award check —one thousand dollars was the prize amount and it was the most disposable income they ever had —is cute and made me chuckle.
Early on Paterson notes that there were stories she heard growing up as the family did the dishes together. She wondered why many of these stories were not passed on to her own now grown children and grandchildren. You never told us that, they’d exclaim. (The answer is easy — they had a dishwashing machine which eroded such family time.) In a way, this book was written for her own loved ones. She set about finding diaries and letters and researched things in far away courthouses and museums to get more information behind the anecdotal stories she grew up with. She added much from her own life, her writing career, her travels around the world as an internationally known figure promoting children’s literacy and the imaginative arts.
I will not spoil the last two chapters but they are tender and touching. The very last is short but she ponders that one famous reviewer said, looking back over her work, said that she is a writer of hope. Indeed. But there is something behind that, she insists, and it is the Biblical doctrine of grace. She cites the words to the hymn Come Thou Font of Every Blessing. She is now 90, doing well, and active at the First Presbyterian Church in Barre, VT, where, as she puts it, she has “experienced the true communion of the saints.” It is a lovely ending to a marvelously entertaining book. It is surely one of my favorite books of 2022.
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