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book apple bench sunlight

And just like that, it’s June. I’m still catching up from a very full May – so here are the books I’ve been reading lately. It’s a short list, but a good one:

The Chelsea Girls, Fiona Davis
Hazel Ripley is expected to follow in her actor father’s footsteps, especially after her brother is killed in WWII. But a USO tour to Italy sparks her budding creativity as a playwright. Davis tells the story of Hazel, her fellow actress and friend Maxine, and the legendary Chelsea Hotel in NYC. A solid historical novel about female friendship, ambition and secrets. (I like Davis’ work.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 30).

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past, Sarah Parcak
Space archaeology sounds like a cross between Indiana Jones and Star Wars – but it’s a real thing, and it’s changing the face of archaeology. Parcak shares stories from the field and explains how high-tech satellite imagery can make a real difference to the future of her field. Engaging, smart nonfiction. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 9).

God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America, Lyz Lenz
America is divided: we hear this all the time, and many of us are living some version of it. Lenz, a journalist who’s lived in the Midwest for years, saw her marriage and her church fall apart in the wake of the 2016 election. She’s spent time with many Christian pastors and congregants to try and understand what’s going on. The story, as you might imagine, is complicated. I’m a Texan living in New England and I have small-town Midwestern roots, so Lenz’s reporting and her personal experience resonated deeply with me. So insightful and honest. To review for Shelf Awareness (out August 1).

Sherwood, Meagan Spooner
Robin of Locksley is dead, and his people – including Maid Marian – are devastated. When Will Scarlet is thrown into prison, Marian impersonates Robin to help get him out. But her actions create a ripple effect, and while she loves her new role as Robin, she must keep it secret for various reasons. A clever YA take on the Robin Hood myth – though I didn’t love a couple of the plot elements. (I did love the Merry Men, especially Alan-a-Dale, and Marian’s maid, Elena.)

Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal
Literature teacher Alys Binat, the second of five daughters, has sworn never to marry. But when she meets one Valentine Darsee, that may change. Kamal’s Pride and Prejudice retelling, set in early-2000s Pakistan, is funny and fresh. I especially loved Alys’ relationship with her best friend Sherry, and a few scenes between Alys and her father. Recommended by Anne.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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light leaves village nyc

I have what I call “the Liberty problem” when I really love a book: I want to do what Liberty Hardy sometimes does on All the Books! and gush, “It’s so good. It’s SO GOOD!” It’s challenging, though, when I have to review a book I love that much – and write about it (somewhat) intelligently.

That’s how I feel about The Dearly Beloved, Cara Wall’s debut novel about two ministers and their wives who live and work in Greenwich Village, starting in the 1960s. (Bonus: the church in the book is inspired by Wall’s childhood church, First Presbyterian in NYC – or at least located on the exact same spot. It’s in the part of the Village I love dearly, and I’ve walked by it many times; I even went to a Christmas fair there, back in December.)

I got to read an advance copy of The Dearly Beloved and interview Cara for Shelf Awareness. Below is part of my review, and some excerpts from our email conversation.

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The son of a respected classics professor at Harvard, Charles Barrett has always expected to follow in his father’s academic footsteps. During his undergraduate years as a history major, he is caught off guard by two seismic events. First, he realizes, suddenly and irrevocably, that he wants to be a minister, for reasons he can’t entirely explain. At nearly the same time, he meets Lily, a brilliant, reserved orphan studying at Radcliffe. She captivates Charles, though she tells him immediately that she can never believe in God. Over the next several years, Charles convinces Lily to build a life with him, despite knowing that she will always stand resolutely apart from his faith.

James MacNally, the youngest son of a drunken father and a worried mother, has hardly thought about God until a distant uncle offers him the chance to go to college, to escape his bleak Chicago neighborhood. Growing impatient with abstract philosophy and rhetoric, he moves toward the church as a way to confront the injustices he sees in the world. He meets Nan, a Southern minister’s daughter studying music, and they marry. When, in 1963, Charles and James are jointly called to pastor a Presbyterian church in Greenwich Village, these four lives become inextricably and permanently intertwined.

As the church–historically comfortable, white and middle-class–struggles to adapt to the turbulent 1960s, its two young ministers must adjust to their new jobs, their multifaceted joint responsibilities and to each other. Jane Atlas, the long-time, no-nonsense church secretary, guides them both with a steady hand. But they must learn to navigate the politics of ministry on their own, and work in tandem while respecting one another’s vastly different perspectives.

Wall uses the backdrop of professional ministry and the pressing questions of faith and vocation to expertly explore the layers of connection that exist within each marriage and between the two couples. Over the years, James, Charles and Nan each grow into a deep personal faith, but all of them wrestle mightily with doubts and fears, especially when one of Charles and Lily’s twin sons, Will, is diagnosed with autism. Charles, to his own shame, finds it particularly difficult to accept his son as he is, but all four adults ultimately respond to Will in ways that make them more compassionate, more human.

Wall probes the deep love that exists in each marriage, and the (non-religious) faith both pairs of spouses must place in one another. Through decades of heartbreak, happiness and many ordinary days, they build lives and families the best way they know how; with honesty, compassion and as much grace as they can give themselves and one another. At the end of the book, they have all become people “who had loved and hoped and worked and lost and failed and made amends.”

Quiet, sharply observed and stunning in its simple compassion, The Dearly Beloved is a powerful meditation on friendship, calling, marriage and what happens when faith meets truly hard times.

KNG: Tell us about your inspiration for The Dearly Beloved.

CW: I didn’t set out to write a story about ministers. I was reading Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin, which is about two couples. I loved the way she wrote about marriage and explored what happens after the traditional “happily ever after” wedding moment.

I grew up in a church with two ministers. One was very tall and the other was fiery. They were both dignified, commanding and august. This book is inspired by my memories of them, which are full of reverence and the tiniest sprinkle of fear.

My family history is steeped in religion. My mother and father were raised as Nazarenes–my paternal grandmother converted when she had a vision of an angel on the other side of the washing line. It was a strict religion–no drinking, dancing or listening to music outside the church. But my grandparents’ churches were also warm and welcoming.

Lily tells Charles early in their relationship that she can never believe in God. But he loves her and builds a life with her anyway. Can you talk about this central disagreement in their marriage?

I see Charles and Lily as very much alike. They are both intellectuals, and both make deliberate decisions about the way they want to live their lives. They both grew up in loving families but felt isolated because they were more serious than everyone around them. Charles hadn’t experienced tragedy in the way Lily had, but he was familiar with her feeling of isolation. He and Lily respond to that loneliness in each other–they understand it intuitively. To me, the central issue in their marriage is not religion, per se–it is that Charles wants Lily to be happy, and Lily has accepted the fact that she will never be happy. She lives in pragmatism and he lives in hope.

Also, Charles didn’t discover God until just a few years before he met Lily. His faith is still forming as he courts her, and it grows around her in the same way trees will grow around boulders and fences. Her atheism causes him to constantly re-evaluate his life. He is never on autopilot, because he is always deciding what it means to be a minister whose wife does not believe in God. If he were married to a believer he might be less substantial, his faith lighter and easier. His relationship with Lily makes his faith–and his life–richer and more nuanced. More challenging, certainly, but a challenge that makes him stronger and better able to lead a church.

The book tells the story of Charles’s and James’s work, and how the church responds to them as ministers. That response is sometimes contentious.

The biggest misconception about churches is that everyone gets along. This is not true! A church is like a co-op building–it has a board and voting members. It’s a hierarchy, which causes power struggles. For every member, church is one of the most important places in their lives, which means they’re intensely invested in how it’s run.

Charles and James come into a divided church, in a divided time, in a divided society. They are caught between preserving the historical identity of a respected institution while steering it through the cultural changes of the 1960s in a way that makes it relevant to modern times. This is like turning a cruise ship: there is more than one propeller to redirect, and it takes a long time to head in a new direction. Charles and James make choose that new direction for their church. This is not, generally, the way Presbyterian churches make decisions, so they get in some trouble. But James’s inherent need to take action made it plausible that he would bypass tradition for what he thought was right.

Three of the four main characters are people of deep faith, but their faiths are quite different from one another. How did you approach writing about their varied struggles with belief and doubt?

I have every one of the struggles with belief and doubt that these characters have. I parcelled out my own, varied experiences with faith between them. Writing about four different religious lives was freeing for me–I often feel like I have to make up my mind about faith and religion, but while writing this book I was allowed to embrace my indecision. I had the chance to think deeply about the ways our faiths of origin affect the way we see the world and the way we live our lives. Some people follow their childhood faith without thinking, some tweak it, some completely disavow it. Whatever we do, it remains embedded in us.

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It was a pleasure to talk to Cara, and if you’re looking for an insightful novel about real people grappling with faith and love and calling, I highly recommend The Dearly Beloved. 

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Rachel held Evans headshot

Like many people I know, online and off, I’ve spent the past week beginning to mourn Rachel Held Evans‘ death.

Rachel came across my radar nearly a decade ago, just before she released her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town. She was already writing online about faith in a way I’d rarely seen before: asking hard questions, wrestling with the tenets of the Christianity she’d grown up with and the layers of (often frustrating) evangelical messages attached to it.

After a warm email exchange, Rachel sent me an advance copy of Monkey Town. I read it avidly and found myself nodding at almost every page. Our experiences, as women raised in southern evangelical churches around the same time, were strikingly similar, and she rendered hers so well.

I kept reading Rachel’s blog, sometimes tweeting about her work or to/with her, for years afterward. I watched her grow bolder and more powerful in calling out the abuses of power (and abuse of many other kinds) perpetrated by churches and church leaders. She had the energy for the kind of online engagement I often shrink from, but I was (am) in awe of her voice and the way she used it. She wrote three other books, all of which I read and found well worth reading. She was no plaster saint: I watched her speak in impatience and anger sometimes, and I watched her listen and apologize and try to do better.

Rachel believed, fiercely, in the kind of Love that makes room for resurrection and redemption for all people. She championed the voices of women and LGBT people in the church. She made space for so many of us to grieve and doubt and ask questions – especially those who are refugees from a certain kind of evangelicalism, but who have not been able to stop wrestling with this story. She admitted, always, that she did not have all the answers.

We were all hoping and praying Rachel would get better after she went into the hospital with an infection a few weeks ago. My heart aches for her husband and two small children, her parents, and all those who knew and loved her. (Like Rachel, I am one of two sisters who are very different but love one another deeply, and I especially hurt for her sister Amanda.)

I’ve been amazed, in the last week, by how many people in different parts of my life have spoken about Rachel and what she meant to them. We miss her deeply, already. She was smart and fierce and thoughtful, kind and funny and faithful and brave. I never got to meet her in person, but she was my friend. May she rest in deep peace and love.

(Image from Rachel’s site)

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memorial church window light candles

The Lord bless you and keep you. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Go and be the church this week. Or even simply: Amen. 

I’ve fallen in love again lately with the words at the end of church services.

The ministers I know tend to take special care with their closing words. They are sending us out, after a brief space of time or a whole morning together: back into the world, where we live our lives and do our jobs and try our best to be kind.

They know, I think, that most of us need something to carry with us on our way. So they offer up a few words or a phrase to hold onto. And many of the ministers I know have a signature benediction that reflects their theology, their hopes, or simply what they love.

When Alanna gets up to close out Morning Prayers at Mem Church, she looks around the congregation, lifts her hands, and says, “As we go into this day: may the Lord bless you and keep you.” It goes on from there: the familiar words from Numbers that many of us know so well.

When Wes stands in the pulpit, he too lifts his hands, and says, “May the Lord keep you from evil, and may the Lord preserve your going out and your coming in.” When it’s KMarie’s turn, she says, “May the Lord grant you the desires of your heart, and bring you peace, joy, forgiveness and love.” (Sometimes she adds “grace,” “hope,” or any number of other good things.)

When Aric gets up there, he says, “May God’s peace rest, rule and abide in each of your lives, and mine, until we meet again.” And Lara repeats one I haven’t quite memorized yet, but it begins, “May we live this day…” and always ends with “…generous in love.”

When my husband and I were ministers, one of us – most often him, but occasionally I – would usually speak the benediction. It varied from week to week, but we invariably ended with “Go and be the church.” A reminder: when you leave these four walls, you carry the church with you, because we are the church, the people of God in this world.

My friend Randy, back in Abilene, has my favorite of all: those same words from Numbers (“May the Lord bless you and keep you”) followed by a few lines from Jude (“Now to him who is able to keep you from falling…”). He, too, lifts his hands and looks around the room, at the people he loves and serves alongside, and speaks those ancient words as though they’re fresh and new.

No matter where I’m heading afterward, I carry these words in my heart: words of blessing, love, hope. In this Holy Week – and always – we need more of all of the above.

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January sunrise pink clouds gold blue

Thy mercy, my God, is the theme of my song
The joy of my heart and the boast of my tongue…

A few Sundays ago, I walked into Church of the Cross, a low-key, welcoming Anglican congregation in the Fenway where I’ve visited off and on. It’s friendly, but not overbearing; people are kind, and a few of them remember my name by now. I like the mix of spontaneous prayer, raised hands and the rhythms of ancient liturgy. It reminds me, in this and other ways, of St Aldates, my beloved church in Oxford, where I still am at home.

Thy free grace alone, from the first to the last
Hath won my affection and bound my soul fast…

A small praise band provides the music: classic hymns, newly minted praise songs and some that fall in between. Inevitably, there’s a song or two I know, and a handful that are wholly new to me. I’ve learned the notes of the Alleluia before the gospel reading, and the later proclamation: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Without Thy sweet mercy I could not live here
Sin would reduce me to utter despair…

On that Sunday, I looked up at the screens to find a song I had totally forgotten about: a lilting, joyful tune written by Sandra McCracken to a set of lyrics from the 1770s. I learned it years ago, from an orange-covered Caedmon’s Call album that I think I still have somewhere.

But through Thy free goodness my spirits revive
And He that first made me still keeps me alive…

I thought I had outgrown this song and most of its kindred, or set them aside, long ago. My faith, these days, is complicated and shaded by doubt more often than pure joy. But I realized that day, as we sang this one, that I still know all the words.

Thy mercy is more than a match for my heart
Which wonders to feel its own hardness depart…

That song kept me company for days afterward, running through my head as I brushed my hair in the morning, as I walked to and from the train station, as I ran errands on my lunch break or after work. It wasn’t in there every moment, but it showed up often enough that I had to admit: it’s still mine.

‘Tis all by Thy goodness I fall to the ground
And weep for the praise of the mercy I’ve found…

One of the gifts of my Southern Baptist childhood – probably, of being steeped in any faith tradition for a long time – is the steady repetition of the same words that carry and embody deep truths. Lots of memory verses and hymns still rise to my recall, sometimes without my conscious effort. Some songs immediately take me back to youth group, or college chapel services, or those Easter pageants I loved so much. And though I am far from the places and the person I was then, the truth of them is still in there, knit deep into my soul.

Great Father of mercies, Thy goodness I own
And the covenant love of Thy crucified Son…

It’s not always easy for me to believe the truths I know: that God loves me, accepts me for who and what I am, sees all my flaws and mistakes and loves me anyway, wants the best for me. I have no trouble reassuring my loved ones that grace and love are real for them, but I have a much harder time accepting that for myself.

All praise to the Spirit, whose whisper divine
Seals mercy and pardon and righteousness mine… 

This song is still with me, weeks later, lodged in my heart like a bird on the wing. Some days it’s a declaration, some days it’s a prayer, some days it’s a desperate hope. Some days it’s all three. And always, always, it is true.

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There once was a man who thought love was war
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before…

I think of this song every year around this time, though I usually hear it in my friend Jenni’s voice instead of Tom Russell’s. Jenni is part of the folk trio JamisonPriest, and I heard her sing it long ago, at a few of their gigs in Abilene.

There once was a woman, a pretty young thing
She sold her soul for a diamond ring…

I love contemporary songs that somehow feel old: Russell released this one in the early 2000s, but his rough-edged voice and the plainspoken lyrics make it seem like a world-weary folk classic. It is not, perhaps, traditional Ash Wednesday music, neither a somber hymn nor a choral setting of a religious text. But it comes back to lodge in my heart every year, when we remember that we are dust.

They’re all lovesick, they’re love tired
They stood a little close to the edge of the fire…

I did not make it to an Ash Wednesday service this year. But on my way to the train after work, I walked by the Old South Church, where two clergy were standing outside in the cold, offering ashes to willing passersby. One of them, a woman I know slightly from our mutual connections to Harvard, greeted me and then marked my forehead with ashes. “Remember that you are dust,” she said, “and to dust you shall return. But today, you have life as a child of God.” My eyes filled with tears.

They’ve got holes in their pockets, holes in their minds
They’re holy people in an unholy time…

Like most folk songs, and like faith, those words and this song tell a story or two and then leave you with a few words and images you can’t quite explain. I don’t understand Russell’s lyrics in the strictly logical sense, but they resonate with me at a deep level. And there’s a reason we refer to “the holy mysteries”: I can’t fully grasp the story I have lived with all my life, but it still draws me in.

Headin’ for the church at the end of the line
Ash Wednesday…

We are right where we always seem to be, when Lent begins: still in the middle of winter, snow-edged sidewalks and bold blue skies, bare branches and biting winds. The green spears of daffodils and crocuses are poking through the earth, but there’s danger of frostbite a while yet. It’s almost Easter, a friend joked the other day, and I said, Oh, no. We’ve barely begun.

We’re all lovesick, and love tired, as Russell has it, or (to quote my singer-songwriter friend Rachel) “proud and aching and sore.” But we are also – I will keep saying it all my life – wholly, deeply, unbelievably loved.

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rainbow spines bookshelf books color

Real talk: more running than reading is happening these days. But here are a few novels and a bit of nonfiction I’ve really enjoyed recently. (The Marisa de los Santos rereading kick continues.)

Lost and Wanted, Nell Freudenberger
When MIT physicist Helen Clapp hears of her college roommate Charlie’s death, she’s stunned – but even more so when she begins receiving texts and calls from Charlie’s phone. Helen tries to solve that mystery while navigating her own grief, parenting her son Jack, and dealing with her complicated feelings for a colleague. Thoughtful, wry and absorbing. Bonus for me: it’s set in Cambridge – Darwin’s even makes a brief appearance (!). To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 2).

When We Left Cuba, Chanel Cleeton
Forced to flee with her family when Fidel Castro seized power, sugar heiress Beatriz Perez is bored and restless in Palm Beach. Then she meets a handsome senator who’s wrong for her for all kinds of reasons, and is (separately) approached by the CIA to aid them in a plot to kill Castro. Cleeton’s sequel of sorts to Next Year in Havana is a fascinating glimpse into the turbulent early 1960s. I liked Beatriz, though I grew frustrated with her at times. I loved Cleeton’s musings on the conflicting pull of family, duty, country, love and independence. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 9).

I’ll Be Your Blue Sky, Marisa de los Santos
This book is about Clare, who appears in Love Walked In and Belong to Me. It begins with her breaking her engagement to a man she knows she can’t marry. Unexpectedly, Clare then inherits a house from Edith, an elderly woman she hardly knew, and it comes with a mystery. As Clare digs into Edith’s past, she’s reckoning with her own decisions and what she wants for her future. Brave and true and lovely, like all de los Santos’ novels.

Hermanas: Deepening Our Identity and Growing Our Influence, Natalia Kohn, Noemi Vega Quinones and Kristy Garza Robinson
This is the July selection for Sarah Bessey’s spiritual formation book club, but I spotted it at the library and decided to leap ahead. Three Latina authors explore their own experience and the idea of spiritual leadership, through the stories of 12 biblical women (Rahab, Hannah, Esther, etc.). I appreciated their honesty about the challenges of being a Latina in the U.S. and in American churches. Some of the evangelical language is of the sort that frustrates me, but I think that’s more my problem than theirs. I also liked their reflections on the biblical hermanas (some of those resonated more than others). We need more stories and perspective like this.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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