If you do not know me outside of my blog, reader, you will not be aware that I have rather, shall we say, eclectic reading interests. I love a good teen book, middle grade novels delight my heart, I can’t get enough stories about bookshop owners and librarians, I enjoy a great deal of historical fiction, political nonfiction (sometimes) engages me and I go through phases where I devour bonnet fiction (for the uninitiated, “bonnet” fiction are novels about the Amish). Spiritual memoirs have done as much for my faith as any church service. Anne Tyler, L.M. Montgomery, J.K. Rowling, Shane Claiborne, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Cindy Woodsmall, Barbara Kingsolver and Sarah Bessey compete for space on my way too small bookshelf. And obviously I adore picture books of many flavors (they have their own bookshelf… and baskets and bins).
I do a lot of re-reading. I always think of it as re-visiting old friends, but I saw something online recently that suggested that people with anxiety like to re-watch their favorite shows in times of stress because they don’t want the tension of finding out how it ends. I’m sure that’s at least partially why I re-read so much. I tend to read very quickly on my first pass through books, especially fiction ones so I can reach the conclusion. If I enjoy the story and re-read it, I can then take a more leisurely journey back through it the next time or the next one hundred times. Since we’ve been spending most (ok, all) of our time at home, I have done about equal parts diving into new tales and reading over old favorites. Here’s the recent line-up:
Afterlife by Julia Alvarez. When I worked at a public library, I met some truly amazing people, including a number of writers. Because I love meeting authors (seriously, I swoon… it’s a bit embarrassing), each of these events stand out clearly in my memory. One year, we received an NEA Big Read grant to do a community read with the novel In the Time of the Butterflies and we were able to do a Skype visit with Julia Alvarez. Technical difficulties aside, it was amazing. She was soft-spoken, eloquent and even more inspiring than even I could have hoped. I envy the students at Middlebury College who get to take writing classes wit her. I loved her stories before I met her, but afterward, I knew I would never miss another book she penned. Which is why I literally gasped with delight (yes, I am that nerdy), when I saw that she was releasing an adult fiction book this spring. Oprah’s magazine listed Afterlife as one its most anticipated books of the year and I quite agree with that. Afterlife did not disappoint. It’s the story of the newly retired and newly widowed Antonia Vega who is trying to process her grief while still navigating the world of family and societal responsibilities. Her erratic older sister goes missing, requiring her to engage with familial drama at the same time that she is drawn into the trials and tribulations of the migrants on the farm next door who are undocumented. Antonia is generally sympathetic, flawed, but shows an enviably amount of self-knowledge. There is a certain amount of humor in the story, plus some heartbreak. I sped through this story and can certainly see myself pulling it off my shelf for a re-read in the future.
Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber. I laughed out loud when Nadia Bolz-Weber admitted that she gets more admiring glances from truck drivers than from good church ladies. I can see why. She’s a rather unusual Lutheran minister. Now any good spiritual memoir requires a lot of honesty, some deep insight into God, a healthy amount of humor and the ability to relate seemingly non-spiritual life events to the formation of personal theology. Bolz-Weber has all of these ingredients and more in her writing. Here is a pastor who is both down to earth and a deep believer in God’s grace. She doesn’t sanitize herself, the world or her understanding of God before laying it all out before her readers. I have read Pastrix twice now and I know I will continue to return to it when I am not in the mood for any sugar coating about life or sweet stories about Jesus. Somehow Pastrix gives me comfort that God can meet me where I am even if I am wallowing in cynicism.
Fierce, Free and Full of Fire by Jen Hatmaker. Here’s an author who has been on quite a spiritual and writing journey over the last fifteen to twenty years. Her books reflected the changes she has experienced as a mother, a wife and a faith seeker. Before I became a mother, I discovered her book Interrupted and connected with the message of social justice. Then I read 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess and connected with its message of anti-consumerism. It seems there is a Jen Hatmaker book for all my moods. When I am feeling down about my mothering skills, I read For the Love and when I am feeling a general mess and in need of a little general encouragement, I turn to Of Mess and Moxie. Going forward, I am sure I will pull out Fierce, Free and Full of Fire when I am in need of some bracing words about the power of community or a reminder to knock-off the body-loathing we all seem to have internalized from our culture’s none too subtle messages. There’s no one quite like Jen Hatmaker to remind us that our struggles are not ours alone, but that we should and do share them with our sisters around the country and the world. While, I miss the fun asides that were present in the hilarious how-tos and lists of her last couple of books (as Jen reminds us humor is not a throw-away quality!), there is a lot to chew on in this latest offering, which shows that Jen has reached the stage in her life when she has become all the adjectives she used to title this book. One last word on Jen Hatmaker (for now): if you can get her books on audio narrated by her, do it. For real. You will not regret it for a minute.
Protector of the Small Series by Tamora Pierce. I am a reluctant and selective fantasy reader. But if I can get into a book, I usually love it. Happily one of my favorite fantasy authors is quite prolific. Tamora Pierce writes fiercely feminist fantasy for teens and this “grown-up” is here for it. This series has four volumes: First Test, Page, Squire, Lady Knight. The main character Keladry is determined to be the first known female knight in her kingdom in hundreds of years. Some people are less than pleased about this ambition. But instead of putting her head down and trying not to stand out as her older knight brothers advise, Kel’s passion for defending justice and protecting the weak and innocent brings her to the notice of just about everyone. She may have to work three times as hard as the boys, but she will prove that she deserves her shield. One of the great things about teen literature is that the books are often quick reads. There have been times during this pandemic that my brain just didn’t feel up for anything but quick reads. Plus I could get it through the NH State Library Overdrive collection so I could read them while the kiddos were falling asleep next to me at night. Tamora Pierce books are awesome for teens and just as good for adults.
The Lost for Worlds Bookshop by Stephanie Butland. Why are bibliophiles always portrayed in novels as liking books more than people? And why do I love all these books so much? (Readers, these are rhetorical questions; no need for you to analyze how much I may or may not have in common with said characters). This is all by way of saying that the premise of this story isn’t original. Loveday has her dream job in a bookshop and despite her feelings of being alone in the world, she is actually tenderly watched out for by a number of people. But she has a secret that she guards obsessively. Again, perhaps not the most original point of departure for a novel, but I enjoyed it. And what’s more, when it was over, I found myself thinking about it for several days. For some reason, Loveday’s story is one that is sticking with me.
Emily Starr series by L.M. Montgomery. When pushed, I often admit that Anne of Green Gables is my favorite book. This is the truth. But in some ways and during some times, I love L.M. Montgomery’s lesser known works just as much. If you are only acquainted with Anne, I’m happy to introduce you to Emily (If you are not familiar with Anne, just stop reading this blog and go read the whole series. All seven books. Do not do anything else until you are finished. Your kids can fend for themselves). Emily is not inflicted with Anne’s despised red hair, but she too is an orphan who goes to live with an older, stern guardian. In Emily’s case, she moves to the family homestead, New Moon, and finds much beauty there, but not much tenderness from her Aunt Elizabeth. I first read these books as a young teen, but for me now, as a parent, I find Emily’s story more poignant as it opens while her father is still alive and you walk with her through his death and her departure from their house to her new home. Once installed in New Moon, this young, highly imaginative heroine discovers her affinity for writing. The sequels to Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest follow Emily through her high school years and into adulthood as she pursues her rainbow gold (a successful writing career), but continually finds love elusive. I have probably read these books a dozen times and just writing about them makes me want to close my computer and go read them again. Looks like we’re having cereal for dinner.
Martha by Diana Wallis Taylor. The Red Tent introduced me to the concept of fictionalizing Biblical stories. I’ve yet to find anything that compares to Anita Diamant’s imagining, but Martha is a solid entry in this genre (is it even a genre?). When I was about four years old, I told my family that “I am not domestic.” This line became the centerpiece of one the family’s most oft-repeated stories. I’m not sure a four year old really should be “domestic”, but even now over three decades later, my declaration would still be accurate. Which is why in the Biblical story of Mary and Martha, I have always been firmly in the Mary camp. No sense pretending I’d want to be the sister buzzing around cooking and serving. Nope. Still Martha often gets a raw deal in sermons and commentary on this story. Although this story doesn’t paint Mary as a duty-shirker, but as a day dreamer who has a crush on one of the disciples. And Martha is not a nagging shrew, but a typical oldest sister with too much responsibility thrust upon her. I love the emphasis the story has on Jesus as a healer and reading the story of the raising of Lazarus from the perspective of one his sister made me see the miracle from a new angle. While I found the romantic resolution unsatisfying, I still enjoyed this re-telling. Diana Wallis Taylor also retold the stories of Mary Magdalene and the woman at the well and I’ll likely give those a shot at some point too.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott. I’ve heard Anne Lamott referred to as a [living] “patron saint.” She is the kind of patroness I could see appealing to for help. Certainly not too holy, she’ll relate to my everyday struggles and not judge me for my less than loving thoughts towards some inhabitants of this world. Although if she’s having a bad day, she might tell me to bug off. This spiritual memoir is an older one, but the reluctant Christian, recovering alcoholic and bestselling author is super quotable, humorous and not hesitant to reveal her shortcomings. Whether or not she’d appreciate me adopting her as a patroness, she is someone to whom I can always return and find fresh insight.
Reviewing this list, it strikes me that this is a fairly accurate representation of what I like to read. I have dipped often in the past couple of months into the wisdom of my favorite storytellers. As usual, they have not let me down.
Your turn. What have you been reading to get you through these strange times?
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