Tag Archive - Booklist

Memorable Literary Companions of 2013

There is something magical about opening a new book. The promise. The anticipation. New worlds I have never yet seen. The story of a life very like, or unlike, my own. Ideas, thoughts, words that will rankle, discomfit, expand, illumine. This year I opened the pages of 36 books. Some new. Some old and much beloved. As I looked back over them in preparation for this post, I was filled with gratitude for every writer who sat down and penned the beautiful words that have nourished and delighted me this year.

Here are a few of the more memorable encounters…

 

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Christian Wiman

My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this…

And so begins the most important book I read this year. Christian Wiman grew up in a west Texas town where faith was a presumption. Unquestioned. When, as a college student, he discovered that there were people who did not believe in God, he shrugged off his inherited “faith” like a jacket that has grown too warm for the afternoon. For two decades he lived comfortably with the absence of God until two cataclysmic events shook his life. He fell in love…

…when I met Danielle, not only was that gray veil between me and the world ripped aside, colors aching back into things, but all the particulars of the world suddenly seemed in excess of themselves, and thus more truly themselves. We, too, were part of this enlargement: it was as if our love demanded some expression beyond the blissful intensity our two lives made.

…and he learned he had a rare and incurable form of cancer.

The book chronicles the several years between then and now. Years that have included unimaginable pain, bones dying, locked joints, bowel failure, and isolation. And in the midst of this, a wrestling with God, with faith, with poetry and art. A raw, authentic quest to penetrate to deep things. To drink hungrily of the beautiful. To weave together moments of exquisite clarity with moments of excruciating loneliness and pain into a tapestry of life that is rich and expansive and true.

His writing style is evocative and lovely and threaded throughout are delicious lines of borrowed poetry and prose that nourished and challenged him along the way. I am grateful to Makoto Fujimura for whetting my appetite for this one. I give it my highest recommendation.

What a relief it can be…to meet God right here in the havoc of chance, to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck.

 

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems, Billy Collins

I had the distinct privilege of hearing Billy Collins at the Porter’s Call Evening of Stories last year. I was already a fan, but to hear him articulate the poems–his cadence, the pregnant pauses–was remarkable. Mike gifted me with this new collection of old and new poems for Christmas. On AUDIO. In the poet’s own voice! I have listened to it over and over. It is a spectacular collection of Collins’ work anyway–funny, poignant, clever–but completely irresistible when he reads them to me. If you are unsure of poetry, start here.

 

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg

This book has been on my list of candidates for a while, but this year my friend Nina put it in my hand. Thank you, Nina!! Clean, concise, and chock full of brilliance. If you are a writer or you want to be, you need this book. One of the best I have read on the craft.

 

I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Brene Brown

It is difficult for me to imagine any human alive who will not find herself in this book. Brene Brown has done years of research on shame and she uses her discoveries to help us build “shame resilience.” She understands that as long as we are alive, we will encounter experiences that shame us. It is what we do with that shame that determines whether we become captive to it or move past it. I read this one with bosom friends, and we laughed and cried our way through it with lots of “oh no!”s and “me too”s. You can get a taste with her Ted talk which has over 12 million views to date. Yep, it’s that good.

 

Tuesday’s With Morrie, Mitch Album

It took me a while to get around to reading the bestselling memoir of all time. I think I was suspicious of the fact that so many people liked it. :/ But when my friend Julie recommended it, I decided to check it out. Thank you, Julie!! Mitch Album spends several months of Tuesdays with his old college professor, Morrie, who is dying. Morrie has always been wise man. A man of examination and thought. But death sharpens that vision and helps him see with even keener perception. This is, in some ways, a book about dying. But it is much more a book about really living.

 

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

I read several books this year by Marilynne Robinson after Christian Wiman tempted me with excerpts in his book. They were all very good, but this was my favorite. Apparently the Pulitzer committee and I are in agreement. John Ames is 76 and knows he will not live to see his 7 year old son reach adulthood–a beloved, unexpected son of a sweet, unexpected second marriage–so he writes a book for his son telling of the life he has lived, the people that have mattered to him, and what all means in so far as he understands it. This narrative is woven in and out of these precious last days he is living with his beloveds. It is a tender, beautiful story told in clean, spare prose.

 

Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”

The characters of Port William have become dear to me. Jayber might be my favorite. The life questions which were not answered in seminary work themselves out in front of him in the confessional of his barber chair, and in the community of characters to which he belongs, and does not belong, as a lifelong bachelor. An unlikely instructor in philosophy, perhaps, but instructor he is. Alternately ponderous, humorous, and sweet.

 

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

This was my year to read ghost stories. Not necessarily by design. I already knew this story from Hitchcock, of course, but when my friend Chelsea told me it was one of her favorite BOOKS, I checked it out. Naturally, the book takes you further into the subconscious of the characters, subtly weaving a web that begins to press against the chest. Artful storytelling, well developed characters, and a host of plot twists make this a terrifically engaging read.

 

Silence, Shusaku Endo

This book was one of the reasons I chose to use the word “memorable” rather than “favorite” in the title of this post. This was a difficult read. Though there are shifts in perspective, much of the story is told in the voice of Rodrigues, a Portugese priest filled with love for the Japanese people who travels to Japan to encourage persecuted believers and find news of a lost priest. He is almost immediately captured. As he observes the cruel torture and relentless persecution of the remnant church, he wrestles with a God who is “silent”. Can his fragile faith withstand the anguish, the futility, the silence?

 

The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

Lily Owens wants desperately to be loved. He father is cruel and her only memory of her mother is of the afternoon she died. She sat in a closet while her mother and father fought. There was a gun. Lily picked up the gun. There was a loud noise. Her mother was dead.

Lily runs away from home seeking answers and follows her mother’s picture of a Black Madonna to Tiburon, South Carolina. Here she will live with the “Calendar sisters” and learn the art of bee-keeping. But she will learn much more than that. A complex, poignant coming of age story.

p.s. Jenna Lamia who reads the audio book is fantastic! I highly recommend listening if that is an option.
p.s.s. The movie is good, but you miss so much of the story. Read, then watch. 🙂

 

Davita’s Harp, Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok writes brilliantly of the liminal spaces in life. Of paradox. In this book, Davita’s parents have rejected the faith of their childhoods, Jewish and Christian, and are staking everything on socialism. There are frequent, hushed night time meetings at their home, which force them to move repeatedly, and always an undercurrent of impending danger. Davita has to string truth together for herself from many disparate influences; her Christian aunt who sweeps in like an angel in times of trouble, her devout Jewish cousin whose home radiates peace and warmth, and her radical parents who are risking everything to make the world better for her.

 

The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

Another ghost story. Or is it? A haunting tale set down by a governess some years after it happens. Perplexing, nuanced, mysterious, spine-tingling, it leaves one with more questions than answers. Positively delicious.

 

Your turn. Best books you read this year? Go!

p.s. Thanks to Kari for recommending “I Thought it was….”, to Ian and Anne for “Jayber…”, to Giorgio for “Silence”, to Karissa and Jen for “Secret Life…”, and to David for “Davita…”. I am profoundly grateful for my bookish friends. 🙂

List of Candidates 2013

I will die with a list of books I meant to read, but didn’t.

This thought disturbs me.

Terribly.

So every year I whittle away at the books I know to be on that list. A little at a time. And every year I learn about other wonderful books. So I add them. And every time I finish reading a glorious novel, a delicious bit of poetry, or an inspiring biography, I pray a little prayer of thanks, not only for the author who penned the words, but for the friend who introduced me to them. If you are reading this, there is a good chance that person was you.

The list is not static, but grows all year through. However, I do make a deliberate effort in January to sweep together all the leavings of the previous year’s list along with titles jotted onto scraps of paper and in margins of books, or plugged into my phone, and begin again. I get so excited I want to read everything all at once. But life intervenes and I will have to tuck them in here and there wherever I can carve out a wee bit of space.

My list of candidates has improved considerably since I began soliciting help from you, my readers. So once again, I am giving you a look at what is already on my list, and asking you to help me fill it in. What have you read recently that rocked your world? What is that book you come back to over and over? Tell me about it. Please!

Here is what I have thus far…

Silence by Shusaku Endo*
Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry*
Waiting for God by Simone Weil
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho
Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok*
On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit by Saint Seraphim of Sarov
The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell*
Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom*
The Poetry of John Keats
Story by Robert McKee
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier*
The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus
The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho*
The Liar’s Club: A Memoir by Mary Karr
Matisse Picasso and Gertrude Stein by Gertrude Stein
Behold the Beauty of the Lord by Henri Nouwen*
Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin
The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris
On Writing Well by William Zinsser

*Indicates book has been completed

Favorite Literary Companions of 2012

A good book is like a good friend. It helps you to see the world more clearly. Perhaps it makes you laugh. Or cry. It nourishes your dreams. Very often it reveals to you a bit of yourself you did not know was there. And, as in the case of a good friend, I am sad when we come to the end of our time together, and I continue to think of it fondly in days, and years, to come.

Here are some of the more memorable encounters from the past year, in strictly chronological order as they came to me.

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor’s wordcraft is a cauldron of conundrum, brilliant characterization, and truths so deep they defy reduction. Her stories have a meandering way of taking us inside ourselves, preparing us for “almost imperceptible intrusions of grace“.

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

His words are sumptuous. His descriptions of Paris in the 1920s with her rain-washed cobblestones and sidewalk bistros and cafes are perfectly delicious. And his intimate reflections on the literary luminaries who were his friends, priceless. I found myself dreaming of living in a little garret in Paris myself with daily strolls through those same avenues, the gardens, the museums… And, always, I love peaking inside the creative process of genius. I remember him speaking of how he could not write about Paris while in Paris. He needed distance to see it properly. This, I understand.

The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky said of this novel that he wanted to write one character who was completely without guile; innocent and good. Gentle Prince Myshkin allows himself to be thought foolish so that he may make others wise. It is a beautiful, redemptive story. An elegant counterpoint to Crime and Punishment.

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson

A chronicle of genius. Albeit eccentric, unwieldy, arrogant genius. A man who thoroughly changed the face of communication in our time. Isaacson weaves an engaging narrative about his enigmatic subject. I found myself laughing frequently. Deeply saddened sometimes. But mostly awed by this man who so often saw the not yet as though it already was. And as I have watched my one year old granddaughter navigate my iPhone over the past few months, it has been clear that his passion for intuitive design was spot on.

 Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultra-marathon Greatness, Scott Jurek

Scott Jurek is one of my heroes. Partly for his freakish ability to run obscene distances really fast, but also for his practice of foregoing a shower and sleep to hang at the finish line for hours congratulating finishers who have been on the trail far longer than he. This book tells the story of a spindly legged kid from a family with its fair share of challenges who grows up to be one of the most remarkable ultra runners the world has known. Jurek writes with great good humor and a deep sense of gratitude. He also includes some of his favorite (vegan) recipes.

Wounded by Love, Elder Porphyrios

Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet…The soul of the Christian needs to be refined and sensitive, to have sensibility and wing, to be constantly in flight and to live in dreams, to fly through infinity, among the stars, amidst the greatness of God, amid silence.

Do you see why I love this man? This is one of the most significant books I have ever read. I know I will revisit it often. Elder Porphyrios’ writings on love have been both nourishing and challenging. It was his belief that if we pursue love only and our hearts become filled with love–for God, and for others–that everything else takes care of itself. This is a very pedestrian reduction of his beautiful words. I invite you to come to know him yourself.

Lit: A Memoir (P.S.), Mary Karr

Liar’s Club, the story of Mary Karr’s rough and tumble childhood in Texas, is credited by many with starting a memoir revolution. This third in the a series tells of Mary all grown up. Of her ‘fairy tale’ prince, of the son she adores, and of the demons that will not leave her alone. It is raw and honest, tragic and hilarious. Ultimately it is a compelling, marvelously crafted story of perseverance and grace.

Lifted By Angels: The Presence and Power of our Heavenly Guides and Guardians, Joel Miller

“This is the staggering asymmetry of God’s goodness. There is more grace than envy, more love than hate, more heaven than hell.”

I read the whole of it in one day. I just couldn’t stop. Joel Miller’s narrative is enthralling, his theology is sound, and his subject matter fascinating. Read my review in its entirety HERE.

A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver

I bought it on Kindle. For my phone. So it is always with me. I can’t tell you how often I pull it out. Just a poem or two. Or all of them at a go. Gift. This voice. That penetrates to the very essence of things. And renders them in such lovely expression. Par example

I HAPPENED TO BE STANDING

I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance.  A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep.  Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why.  And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t.  That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self purpose.

This is the line that caused me to buy the book. (Thanks, Karissa) The Night Circus is an enchantment. Mysterious. Beautiful. All done out in black and white. It is a feast of imagery and imagination. Read it for the artist in you. The part of you that still traffics in magic. Or wants to.

Deep Calling to Deep…

I wish you could know my friend Kendra. She is a remarkable young woman. Heart wide open. Generous, courageous, curious. I walk away from every encounter with her encouraged and challenged.

So when she made a request of me, a couple of weeks ago, I took it very seriously. She asked for suggestions for some creative, inspiring, heart-and-eyes-wide-open reading. As I began to compile my list, it occurred to me that I would have you know these books. And I would LOVE to know what would be on YOUR list.

Here are some of the authors and books that call to deep places in me. That rankle and provoke, that compel me to dream better dreams, that stoke the fire within.

Mary Oliver, especially Thirst  Oliver sees the world with extraordinary eyes, and she paints it with lovely, evocative words that allow us to see it, too. Her writings on longing and prayer and the life within are some of the most excruciating and exquisite I have ever read.

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away expect-
ing to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.

P.S. I love hearing her poetry in her own voice. Listen to three poems here. The first will surprise you, I think. The second, one of my favorites, will leave you undone. Marvelously undone. The third will nourish and delight.

Thomas Merton, especially The Seven Story Mountain and New Seeds of Contemplation. Also, the Book of Hours offers a lovely sampling of his work. Thomas Merton is an Anam Cara. A soul friend. One who sees the world in a way very like, only more so. I can pray his words and feel as though they are mine, just more elegant. More piercing and concise. More thorough. I crawl into them and travel through them to a place I want very much to know.

“You have made my soul for Your peace and Your silence, but it is lacerated by the noise of my activity and my desires.  My mind is crucified all day by its own hunger for experience, for ideas, for satisfaction.  And I do not possess my house in silence.

“But I was created for Your peace and You will not despise my longing for the holiness of Your deep silence.  O my Lord, You will not leave me forever in this sorrow, because I have trusted in You and I will wait upon Your good pleasure in peace and without complaining any more.  This, for Your glory.”

C.S Lewis, especially The Great Divorce and Till We Have Faces  Well crafted stories carry profound truths to deep places in our hearts. I have read the first title 6 or 7 times, and the second twice. Once each with friends. I still see these characters regularly before my eyes. Lewis’ insight into the meandering of the human psyche and his ability to convey these are unmatched. *Note, The Great Divorce starts slowly in my opinion. Persevere! It is SO worth the effort. Soon you will be reading so fast you forget to breathe. And re-reading. I promise.

Chaim Potok, especially My Name is Asher Lev I have read three books (thus far) by this author, all excellent. But this is my favorite. Important questions about talents and gifts, about faith, and most especially about where (or whether) one can live at peace within the other. Excruciating. Riveting.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho An evocative tale about a young man seeking his “treasure”. He finds far more than he could have dreamed. Something richer, deeper, better. Something MORE…

“When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible…”

Madeleine L’Engle, especially Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art I happen to know Kendra already loves this one, but it is most essential. This is a sweet washing of life and imagination and God and story and creativity and everything that makes us truly alive in the world.

Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God When I am lost; when my soul is terribly troubled and I do not know how to say what is happening, I rush to Rilke. Almost always, I find the words I need here. His was a turbulent, hungry, desperate, ecstatic journey with God. And he wrote it all down. So I borrow his words. And say what is already in my heart.

In deep nights I dig for you like treasure.
For all I have seen
that clutters the surface of my world
is poor and paltry substitute
for the beauty of you
that has not happened yet….

My hands are bloody from digging.
I lift them, hold them open in the wind,
so they can branch like a tree.

Reaching, these hands would pull you out of the sky
as if you had shattered there,
dashed yourself to pieces in some wild impatience.

What is this I feel falling now,
falling on this parched earth,
softly,
like a spring rain?

John O’Donohue, especially Beauty the Invisible Embrace and Anam Cara  O’Donohue’s lyrical prose reads like poetry. (It doesn’t hurt that I heard him read before I read him.) I can always hear him now. A rich, Irish brogue that sings the words. Words about the beautiful. About love and kindness and spirit and God.

“…beauty is so quietly woven through our ordinary days that we hardly notice it.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, especially The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky’s world can be dark at times, but his characters are nuanced and layered. No villain is without hope of redemption, and no protagonist is thoroughly without vice. All are pilgrims. We see more of ourselves in them than we might care to.

Lilith by George MacDonald  The path to resurrection will ALWAYS lead through death. But none of us wants to die. Really. This is one of the most difficult books I have ever read. Mostly because at the time of my first encounter I was digging in my heels and refusing to die to all the things I had used to define “me”. I felt like letting go of these would be death, NOT figurative but LITERAL death. This book, this fantasy of the highest order, helped me get inside that dark place. It gave me courage to do the hard work of becoming, by first being willing to walk into the terrifying darkness of being nothing.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield  This is one of the most important books I have ever read on pursuing your calling, whatever that calling may be. I re-read it frequently because I so need the kick in the pants it delivers. Here is an example of what you will find within:

If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.

Julia Cameron’s  The Artist’s Way: Creativity as a Spiritual Practice  Cameron is a successful writer, but she remembers all too well what it is like to be silenced by fear. In this book she teaches us how to break through barriers to our creativity. Barriers we are not even aware of that are blocking our art. It is highly interactive and requires homework. But it is so worth it.

Thanks, Kendra, for giving me a reason to revisit old friends. Pick and choose whatever seems right to you. It is a worthy start, I believe.

To all of you, friends near and far, who is it that fans the flame of your passion, your creativity?

 

List of Candidates 2012

Life is too short to read bad books.

So, I pick and choose literature with the utmost care. This I do largely based on the recommendation of literary friends whose taste has proven impeccable. Sometimes I add books mentioned as favorites by a writer I respect. Or I chase down additional titles from an author whose work has captivated me.

All of these I add to a running “list of candidates”. I learned this practice in Steve Leveen’s tiny treasure of a book,  The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life. When I finish a book, I peruse the list to find a selection just right for just this moment. It is a marvelous resource.

Here are the books that are currently crowding to the front of my list. Please, PLEASE, let me know which books I MUST add. Last year was one of my favorite reading years ever, largely because of the great books you told me about. I am counting on you.

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor *
A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography by Egon Wellesz
Mother Gavrilia: The Ascetic of Love
by Nun Gavrilia*
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemmingway *
Silence by Shusaku Endo
Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron*
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky*
Waiting for God by Simone Weil
The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson*
The Trembling of the Veil by W.B. Yeats
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh *
Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok
The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell
The Poetry of John Keats
Story by Robert McKee
Wild Iris by Louise Gluck *
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris
On Writing Well by William Zinsser

*List items read thus far. For a full listing of all this year’s reads (as well as past years, and favorites), click on the Bookshelf tab above.

Top Posts of 2011

Writing is sometimes just for me. Thoughts I need to work out. The words give place to that. But, mostly, writing is about communing with another. And it is always most satisfying when it resounds in the heart of someone…or many someones. These are the posts that this year connected most deeply, based on number of visits, shares, and comments.

Thank you for reading. I would still write if you didn’t. But it would mean far less.

Godspeed  In January, our dear Father Seraphim was laid to rest. He was an artist and a man of peace. He will be much missed. Herein I write my impressions both of him and of the service which ushered him into the Presence. (This post was transferred from my previous blog without comments. You can read those HERE if you like.)

Delicious Agony  A Lenten post. Of the futility of striving to apprehend God, and the extravagant grace of receiving Him. Incidentally, the song featured in this post has become a lullaby for my granddaughter. Would that she could understand the truth of it without the folly and error I required.

Just Show Up  What if all that is required of us…to care for our friends, to live out our faith, to create…is simply our presence? Our willingness to be…

Soul Stink  A confession.

Daughter of My Daughter  An attempt to capture a crack in time. One of those moments that will live in the memory for always. The day my daughter became a mommy.

Dream Wall  A fanciful construct, inspired by David McCullough’s book, The Greater Journey, which struck an unexpected cord. For the lover of art. Or the would be lover of art. An invitation…

Pray in Me  Of the words which bury themselves inside us, if we will let them. Of the Spirit who prays Himself in us with groanings too deep for words…

Before They Leave  Of the books I would have all our children know before they leave home.

You Don’t Have to Shave Yo’ Legs  A playful look at a volatile subject. Love that loves all the time, no matter what. Love that chooses to see good. Plus, a little ditty from Keb Mo. 🙂

Book List: The Lost Books  My most popular book list EVER. If you were stranded on a deserted island, which books would you want to have with you? Be sure and read the comments. They Are GOLDEN!!

Fringe Benefits  Of perseverance and persistence. Of the unexpected gifts that come with doing the hard things.

A Blessing Unsolicited: Part II  Sometimes the most beautiful gifts come in unlikely packages…

Empty  Of a costly exuberance. Of pouring out too much.

Booklist: On Writing  My favorite authors on the crafting of words. Again, some great info in the comments.

Lord, Make Me Humble, But Not Yet  A raw, honest confession. Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.

Of Being a Grandmother  Being a grandmother is, in fact, the bombdiggity. 🙂 Here’s why.

Postcards From Atlanta  Of a spectacular weekend with Women of Faith.

If I Were Really Brave  On daring and audacity, and risking it all.

11 Films to See More Than Once  The most popular of a series of 11 posts I did in October. Films that are so rich that they bear repeating. Another one where you want to read the comments.

Favorite Literary Encounters of 2011

It always makes me a little nauseous. Sitting down to make a list of favorite reads, I mean. Because there will be books I love that don’t make the cut. And they will sit there on the page imploring and asking me how they failed me. And I will want to cry. Because yes, they were very good. And I will remember some exquisite passage and exactly where I was when I read it and what it awoke in me. And I will feel like a traitor.

But the fact is, I have found my most memorable books from the recommendation of friends. And we have time to read only so many books before we die. Therefore, I feel a moral obligation to tell others about wonderful books I read, even if the process is excruciating.

Here are standouts from this year’s crop:

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas  This is one of those novels that demand revisiting. The plot is complex, with subtleties and nuances that will require a lifetime to sort out. A disturbing, redemptive, provocative meditation on justice and grace.

Thirst: Poems, Mary Oliver  This book lies on a table in my bedroom. I can not tell you how many times this year I have picked it up, searching for just the right words. And finding them. Mary Oliver has proved a very good friend. Her poems give voice to rumblings in my soul. Yearnings. Delicious joys.

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away expect-
ing to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.

~Mary Oliver

New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton  “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being…” Is it any wonder that I love Merton so? His exploration of the interior life continues to compel and instruct me.

Peace Like a River Leif Enger  I recall with vivid clarity the moment I knew this story was not going to have a happy ending. Could not have a happy ending and be true. I almost dug my heels in and refused to finish it. But I could not not finish it. I had invested myself too deeply in these characters and I had to follow it through. The best books are very like life. Messy, painful, but relentlessly tinged with hope. Even when all circumstances prescribe against it. This is such.

Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir. . . of Sorts, Ian Cron  Too fantastic to be true, yet absolutely true. A story filled with intrigue, heartbreak, and renegade joy from a fabulous storyteller: winsome, funny, poignant. Read my full review HERE.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand  Hillenbrand weaves an enthralling narrative around the true story of Louis Zamperini whose plane was shot down in the middle of the Pacific during World War II. We follow his terrifying weeks aboard a life-raft, the horrors of life as a prisoner of war, and the surprising challenge of returning home. It is a survivor story to be sure. But it is also a story of going beyond just survival. Highly recommended.

Stained Glass Hearts: Seeing Life from a Broken Perspective, Patsy Clairmont  Patsy Clairmont, humorist extraordinaire who can captivate a whole auditorium with her stories, reveals her softer, poetic underbelly in this lovely ode to the beauty in brokenness. Contemplative. Poet. She who has a deep ache for beauty, transcendence, truth. Weaver of words who can turn a phrase with a delicate, fragile loveliness that pierces the heart. Read the whole of my rave HERE.

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCullough  While many Americans were heading west to find their fortunes, another group headed east to Paris to study. Art, science, and industry were still in their infancy in 19th century America. But Paris was a cauldron of idea and audacity. And the people who spent time there would return to shape the America of the future. McCullough carries us there with fascinating stories of people whose names will be familiar, though I’ll wager the many of the stories will surprise you. I did not write a review of the book, but you can read a post inspired by it HERE.

A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver  “For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes indeed.” Yes indeed. Pulitzer prize winning Oliver has much to say about the craft of writing. I found much inspiration and nourishment here.

Giver of Life: The Holy Spirit in Orthodox Tradition, John Oliver  O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life; come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Gracious Lord. Father Oliver builds his remarkable illumination of the Holy Spirit around this portion of the Trisagion prayers. It is one of the most stimulating books our Tuesday study group has ever read. You can sample a bit of his teaching in this post, inspired by one of the more difficult chapters for me personally.

Hannah Coulter: A Novel, Wendell Berry It is, perhaps, because she seems so familiar. Very like someone I have known. Or, perhaps it is simply Berry’s winsome telling of her story. But this was a comforting, sustaining read for me. More thoughts HERE.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard  I dragged out the reading of it out over a couple of months. Very unlike me. Because I dreaded being done with it. Not walking with her through the woods, over the pond, across the meadow. I miss her directing my gaze to something I would surely have missed. I miss her quirky observations and her detailed explanations. Mostly, I miss her words.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee  I can’t believe I read it for the first time at 45. A rich exploration of life inside the mind of a young girl growing up in the rural south. Some of her experiences very like my own, some completely other. Whimsy, superstition, intrigue, honor, courage, pain. All of these in generous measure. One of the best books I have ever read.

*Honorable Mentions: Brave New World, Aldous Huxley and Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury I found both of these to be terribly troubling. Mostly because the disturbing worlds they predict have so very much in common with the world in which we are living. Worlds where reading is banned and thinking for oneself is a thing of the past. Where we are spoonfed beliefs “for our own good” and for the “benefit of society”. I find it difficult to call them favorites when they made me so uncomfortable. But I haven’t the least difficulty calling them important.

What books did you read this year that rankled, inspired, or captivated?

Tidings of Comfort and Joy…

Every year I pull them out with the decorations. They go into a basket in the living room. And we read them over and over. And they are just as funny, or sweet, or troubling as they were the first time. Some of them have Christmas stickers or crayon marks lovingly added by little fingers over the years. And they are one of the threads that ever weaves us together as a family.

Christmas Books

Picture books. Advent devotionals. Classic literature. All have a place. And when I hold them in my hands, a panorama of other Christmases in other places, but with these same dear faces, plays before my eyes. And the fire of gratitude is stoked inside me.

Here are a few of our family’s every year favorites. I would love to know yours.

The Glorious Impossible by Madeleine L’Engle with paintings of Giotto  The Nativity as framed by one of my favorite storytellers, accompanied by the sumptuous paintings of Giotto from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Giotto was a landmark artist; the forefather of the Renaissance. And this series of paintings is one of the more remarkable in all of western art. Add that to the beauty of L’Engle’s words, and the beauty of the story itself, and you have a masterpiece worth revisiting, over and over.

The Night Before Christmas by Clement Moore Just a few nights ago I was up during the night with Kenzie. I recited this poem to her. Twenty years rolled away in an instant, and I was holding her mommy as a brand new November baby, reciting the same poem into the night. I memorized it as a little girl. By osmosis. By listening to the Perry Como Christmas album approximately 478 times every year. (My brother and I double stacked it with the Chipmunks Christmas. Side one of both. Then flip the stack.)

The Cajun Night Before Christmas and The Hillbilly Night Afore Christmas My aunt introduced us to the Cajun version when she lived in New Orleans years ago. We love it! I later found the Hillbilly version. When I read it,  Appalachia is in my voice and in my heart.

Twas the night afore Christmas
‘Twixt ridgeback and holler,
No critter was twitchin
Nary hog dast to waller

Each keerful darn’t stockin’
War’ nail’t near the chimbly,
A hopin’ that Sainty’d
Be a extry bit fren’ly….

On the Incarnation by St. Antanasius It is one of the most important books I have ever read. Just over a hundred pages, but throbbing with the essence of the gospel. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In language precise and potent, Antanasius defends the most pivotal truth of Christianity. This year, I make it part of my preparation…

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss I never get all the way through without crying. My children indulge me. We all know someone like the Grinch whose heart is “two sizes too small”. I suppose I never want to forget that all of those someones can be made new. And that my family and I can be part of that. One of Kenzie’s favs so far. Can’t decide, though, if she just loves the black, white, and red illustrations. 🙂

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson Speaking of lost causes…. 🙂 No one has ever seemed more of a lost cause than the Herdman children. And yet, remarkably, they will help all of us see Christmas with new eyes. We laugh our way hysterically through almost the whole book, until that moment when things get really quiet and my kids say, “Mom, are you crying?” Beautiful!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens There is a reason why everyone and his brother has wanted to tell this story. To give it their unique imprint. In it we see ourselves. Our best selves. Our worst selves. And, more than anything I think, we are reminded that it is never to late to choose a new course for our lives. This is a message we need to hear again and again. Some of us more than others. Read it aloud to your family. It is the work of an afternoon. It will spark wonderful discussion. and the language is delightful.

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas I read it every year. Yet, I find that the events of the year…the hard things, the joys, the new experiences…color the familiar stories, and I see something I have never seen before. Beautiful, hard, thought-provoking words from some of my favorite authors: C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle…that draw me deep into the longing, the mystery, and the magic of the season.

Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J.M. Nouwen Nouwen has been a very influential voice in my life. I enjoy having him near in this Holy season. Short writings that orient my heart for the day.

The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson This story haunted me as a little girl. I could not get it out of my head. Or out of my heart. It haunts me still. But I still read it. May I always have eyes to see the unseen people in my world. May I be so discomfited that I must do something to help. I highly recommend the edition with Rachel Isadora’s luscious illustrations. They are positively captivating.

Your turn. What are the books you read over and over in this season?

Booklist: The Travel Books

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page. ~St. Augustine.

Ours is a family of gypsies. We LOVE to travel. Early in our marriage, Mike and I decided that experiences and memories would always have priority over stuff as we made choices regarding allocation of time and of money. So, while I buy most of my clothing at Goodwill and consignment stores, clip coupons, and never buy anything that is not on sale, ours is a family that has seen a good bit of the world.

It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we essentially are. ~Alain de Botton

Traveling to far-off places has a tendency to help us find bits of ourselves, and of one another, that have lain hidden. It challenges and inspires us. And, it gives us a treasure trove of memories that are part of the cement that binds us as a family.

When we are not traveling, I am frequently reading about the travels of others, or combing through guide books and dreaming about our next trip. Here are a few of my favorites. Be sure and tell me yours.

Travel Guides

Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door  Rick Steves has been my best friend in planning the several trips we have made to Europe. He and I share a common philosophy about travel: While in a foreign country, one should soak up as much of the authentic culture as possible. Eat where they eat. Sleep in their neighborhoods. Shop in their markets. Why would I want to travel to Istanbul to sleep in an American chain hotel and eat at McDonalds? I can do that here.

Steves puts his decades of experience to work for me, and helps me find those quirky, off-the-beaten-path places that put me in direct contact with the people I am visiting. Our family is eternally grateful to him for introducing us to one of our favorite destinations EVER: Vernazza in the Cinque Terra (along the Italian Riviera). Europe Through the Backdoor gives a great overview and some general travel tips that are helpful wherever you might find yourself in Europe. His guides for individual countries give more specific information.

I especially like his walking guides, both for cities and for museums, highlighting attractions on the way. And, not surprisingly, I appreciate the historical information as well as curiosities and trivia.

DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Concise. Full color illustrations. Small enough to slide into your back pocket. They always include helpful street and metro maps. Usually specific to a city or a region (like Provence). We have them for New York, Chicago, Paris, Dublin, and London. They begin by giving their top ten things to see in the city. Then they give top ten lists for categories: museums, pubs, restaurants, hotels, children’s attractions, sporting events, etc… They usually include a list of excursions outside the city as well. For example, the Dublin guide gave us information about the whole of Ireland. While Rick Steves takes you in through the back door, these guides will make sure you know about all the major don’t miss attractions.

If I still need info after consulting these two sources, I consult guides from Frommer’s and Fodor’s. I love that they too are now adding color photographs to many of their guides. I like the traveling philosophy of the Lonely Planet guides and have, at times, found valuable information therein. But, I find their organizational system cumbersome.

Travelogues

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton  I make an unusual exception here in that this is the first book I have ever included on a booklist before having read the whole of it. The portions I have read convince me that, if the rest were rubbish (most unlikely) it would still be a valuable read. The author is a contemplative. He takes as his companions on his exploits artists and writers who give him new eyes with which to see the world. He rolls around ideas and observations that are most intriguing. Thoughts about anticipation, curiosity, beauty, art, and seeing our own everyday world as a destination worthy of reflection.

To the Field of Stars by Father Kevin A. Codd  A compelling personal story of pilgrimage, of discovery, of communion…along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. This pilgrimage is on my own bucket list. Father Codd’s beautiful account of struggle and pain, generosity and joy is stoking my desire.

Jesus spent a lot of time on the road…I wanted to know what it was like to live as he lived, depending on his feet to keep him bound to the earth and moving forward towards his destiny. Know his feet, know him.

A Thousand Days in Tuscany by Marlena De Blasi  De Blasi’s background as a food writer is obvious every time she describes the ridiculous food she enjoys in Tuscany. My mouth waters. And I start looking for apartments in Tuscany… This is a beautiful book about a roughly 3 year period she and her husband spend becoming part of a small, close knit Tuscan village. Great community meals, grape harvests, crusty old seasoned characters. Marvelous.

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

We had talked about it during the long gray winters and the damp green summers…looked with an addict’s longing at photographs of village markets and vineyards, dreamed of being woken up by the sun slanting through the bedroom window…

Mmm hmmm. Me too, Peter, me too. Thing is, even though Mayle is completely honest about the challenges…cracked pipes, the brutal Mistral winds, falling roof tiles, etc…I find myself, on the last page, wanting more than ever to spend a long season in France. Mayle’s evocative descriptions take me there. And nourishes the dream….

Round Ireland With a Fridge by Tony Hawks  A drunken wager gives way to an ironic adventure.  An endeavor so ludicrous, so perplexing, so…intriguing…that folks can’t help joining in. Offering rides, food, lodging. Soon, his reputation precedes him. And his folly becomes a national phenomenon. An unlikely, yet completely true story. An inside look at the ordinary people you and I might have missed. Great fun.

Addendum:  Keep in mind that plenty of books having nothing to do with travel can deepen and enrich your travel experience. For example, planning a visit to Ireland? Take a look at How the Irish Saved Civilization, Beauty: the Invisible Embrace, Angela’s Ashes, Dubliners, the poetry of W.B. Yeats or Seamus Heaney. These books will help you understand everything you see; the architecture, the art, the churches, the markets, the faces, the ethos, the very essence of the people.

God Who Told Stories

A friend of mine, a fine storyteller, remarked to me, “Jesus was not a theologian. He was God who told stories.”
~Madeleine L’Engle

All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables [stories]; and without a parable he did not speak to them.
~Matthew 13:34

Why stories? Why not rules? Precepts? Propositional truth? Why in the world would the Creator of the universe sit around spinning yarns?

Could it be that Christ had something for us that was too round, too subtle, too textured and layered to be summarized into 3 points? Or 5 steps? Or 7 secrets?

A story isn’t really any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind.
~Flannery O’Connor

Hangs on?

Expands in the mind?

Brothers Karamazov  Peace Like a River  Til We Have Faces  Lilith  My Name is Asher Lev  The Alchemist …just to name a few. Stories that wrap themselves around me. That draw me in. Asher’s pain is my pain. When Ruben wonders why the healing his father gives to others is not given to him, I wonder too. What Santiago sees, I see. I breathe the same air. The same grains of sand sting my skin. When Lilith dies…I die.

And the stories roll around in my head for weeks…months…rankling, provoking, stretching me, giving me hope…

Truth we have lived is truth we own. Experience is a most effective schoolmaster. When we encounter great stories, those experiences become ours as well. We stand inside truth that is too complicated and messy, too transcendent and glorious, to be reduced to a principle. It must be wrestled with. Clawed at. Cursed. Clung to. Celebrated. And finally, taken deep within. Til it becomes part of our blood.

Why did God tell stories? What was it that He would give to us that could only be given in this form? What do you think?

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