State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
I’m not certain this book will satisfy everyone. But the characters will not leave my head. The sign of a good book. I keeparguing with them, wanting them to change. I want to shout especially at one of them to say: YOU are SO deluded!
Patchett’s complete lack of romantic hyperbola about The Jungle: beautiful, poisonous, sinister, juxtaposed with the cold, freshened air of Minnesota is compelling. Her writing is powerful, luminous: “She pulled off her light spring coat and then the zippered cardigan beneath it, stuffing them into her carry-on where they did not begin to fit, while every insect in the Amazon lifted its head from the leaf it was masticating and turned a slender antenna in her direction. She was a snack plate, a buffet line, a woman dressed for springtime in the North.” (p. 65)
My brief summary: Dr. Marina Singh arrives in Brazil charged with finding her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who has disappeared while working on a valuable new drug. Marina enters a mysterious world with unforgiving danger, and we do not want the story to also force her to face her own heart with its unimaginable losses. But we know it is inevitable.
The story is strong because it is carried by a character we know. Myself. Yourself. We all live with deceptions that must be painfully torn away if we are to become stronger, wiser, more compassionate. The ending made me want to ask someone to please discuss this book with me.
An Imperfect Offering by James Orbinski, M.D.
The title – An Imperfect Offering – tells us much about how Orbinski views the humanitarian aid projects he has led or joined. He tells the story of ministering among thousands with horrific injuries, who are famished, dying, orphaned, wounded on every level, of never having enough food, medicine, or the safety needed to administer aid. He reflects on human limits and yet comes to believe that kneeling in the dust with one violently mutilated woman, with hundreds dying around you, is the gift you are called to give in that moment, to that one person, and that that is good. It is what you can offer. This was a hard book to read and yet I felt compelled. I had a choice to either feel hopeless about the terrifying conditions of mankind and toss the book aside or I could acknowledge these stories. I could listen to Orbiniski tell what it was like, for example, to be in Kigali, Rawanda, during the genocide. There is power in listening even during the hard parts. When we hear and grieve with them, we affirm, confirm, that unspeakable, unprintable things happened to people who need justice and healing.
The last third of the book is a little tedious with many complex details. Still, I give this book four stars as he helps us better understand the enormous complexities of politics, war, and humanitarian aid.
Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean
From his beginning as an orphaned puppy on a battlefield in France to becoming the most famous dog in the world and Hollywood’s number one box office star, this is the story of Rin Tin Tin, his owner’s rise to fame and his subsequent fall into oblivion. Orlean recounts fascinating details about the German Shepherd breed, for example, by 1939 the German military had a canine core of 200,000 dogs! Dogs were recruited and trained as sentries, messengers, scouts, mine detectors and even airplane spotters. One of their most poignant jobs was to find wounded soldiers caught behind enemy lines and give the dying a drink of water and a pack of cigarettes. Orlean theorizes why we love animal legends, especially those popularized in the movies. It makes sense: “The invention of cinema came at the moment when animals were starting to recede from a central a role in human civilization; from that moment forward, they began to be sentimental – a soft memento of another time, consolation for the cost of modernity. The ability to feel emotion about animals came to be a marker for being human just as humans began living apart from them, and it remains that way today.” (p. 66)
Even if you didn’t see movies of Rin Tin Tin, many of you will enjoy this account of a dog who really did live to please his owner.
The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson
This was the funniest book I read this year. Parts of it, anyway. But when you are done laughing, the questions Ronson raises are disturbing. Some of the characteristics of psychopathy are: a callous lack of empathy, manipulative, superficial charm, self-aggrandizing, parasitic lifestyle, rationalizing when accused of wrong-doing, no sense of remorse. If you are a felon and score high on the Hare Psychopath Checklist, that will be your classification forever. No rehab or parole. There is also evidence that a higher than average number of business, religious and political leaders fall into this classification. After reading the list, I spotted them everywhere. But Ronson also raises questions about the ambiguities and pitfalls of psychiatric diagnoses, making me doubt after all that 75% of the people interviewed on 60 Minutes are psychopaths. Hmmm. But think about this: Ronson told Bob Hare, the man who developed the test now considered standard, that “surely stock-market psychopaths can’t be as bad as serial killer psychopaths?” Bob replied, “Serial killers ruin families.” Bob shrugged. “Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.” (p. 112)
Ronson says, “most of all, I suppose, I write about mysterious worlds. I write about them in as human a way as I can.” So, how do we think about, live with, treat psychopaths? If you are hard-wired with inherent characteristics and can’t repent, could you ever become a Christian? Do you have choices? I would love to discuss this lively, well-written book in a group.
Baby’s Hug-a-Bible by Sally Lloyd Jones
To have this book as a companion for the Rain for Roots CD is such a brilliant gift idea for a baby or a toddler, you simply don’t need to do any more thinking about what to get all the little people on your list. This baby’s first Bible was the inspiration for the CD. All the texts of these ten rhyming Bible stories became the lyrics for the tracks of this album. This is a sturdy board book with a faux lamb’s wool cover that makes it special to hug and even chew. The illustrations are bright and the words are simple enough for a baby to hear and yet interesting enough to hold the attention of a toddler. The author, Sally Lloyd Jones has an incredible gift for capturing the truth and beauty of Scripture in language that does not trivialize or make me want to roll my eyes. I would have loved this for one of my babies, but since they’re all grown I will give this as a shower gift over and over. Good for ages 0-4 years.
Rain for Roots: Big Stories for Little Ones
This past year, a group of four talented Nashville singer/songwriters came together as friends and mommies to make beautiful music that takes the truth of Scripture and sets it to good lyrics with simple, sing-able melodies for their children. One of them was my good friend Katy Bowser Hutson. Out of this collaboration came Rain For Roots, Big Stories for Little Ones, a cd I wish my own children had heard when they were small. I have little patience, a short attention span and a tendency to trash children’s music that is overly simplistic or repetitious, but this is a lovely cd in every way. I’m sure I could listen about a million times along with my little one without kicking the daylights out of the player. For awhile it ranked at the top of iTunes children’s music chart. The message and the music are that good. The album wouldn’t have worked if the musicians hadn’t, each of them, been accomplished and creative. The lyrics are all from Sally Lloyd Jones’ Baby’s Hug-A-Bible which means this cd is also a wonderful way to introduce the very young to stories of the Bible and to God’s great love for them and all creation.
You really should buy copies of this even if you don’t have little ones, because you know some, don’t you? Rain for Roots makes a great gift because that baby needs to be calmed and rocked. Or what about Christmas? It’s coming right up. Order directly from http://www.rainforroots.com/
Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D James
Imagine what the book would be like if Jane Austen were to write a who-dun-it. Well, P.D. James has. As if she were channeling Jane Austen, James flawlessly returns Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy to life, only to make them face murder and mayhem. Haven’t we wondered what became of them after they so happily married and moved into Darcy’s magnificent estate? Would Elizabeth command enough respect to manage the large staff of servants? Could Mr. Darcy bear his mother in-law’s coarse gossiping? Did they have children? What about the conniving Wickham and the foolish Lydia? Would they find a way to destroy Elizabeth’s Idyll? With Austen’s wry wit and keen observations, James tells us what they’re up to.
See if you agree that James captures Austen’s voice: “It is generally accepted that divine service affords a legitimate opportunity for the congregation to assess not only the appearance, deportment, elegance and possibly wealth of new arrivals to the parish, but the demeanour of any of their neighbours known to be in an interesting situation, ranging from pregnancy to bankruptcy. A brutal murder on one’s own property will inevitably produce a large congregation, including some well-known invalids whose prolonged indisposition had prohibited them from the rigors of church attendance for many years.” (p. 137)
This was a fun read and would make a great gift for Jane Austen lovers who have wished she had written just one more book, please? Some critics scorned the book. So be warned.
Winter Light: A Christian’s Search for Humility by Bruce Ray Smith
The light of winter enters our home at an angle from the south. It may seem faint and cold, but find a patch of sun pouring through a window, sit in it for awhile, and soon you begin to warm. You might even shed the sweater. Winter Light is like this. Quiet, lyrical, rich prose that sends an unassuming ray that suddenly burns. In a collection of journal entries, through a season of winter, Smith excises and examines the roots of his pride and searches for humility and healing from God. It is painful, for him, for us, because if we allow, that is, admit God through these reflections, they will unravel our own prideful threads.
“Do not, I want to say to my friends, expect too much of me. I am ashamed. I am ashamed that pride, my pride, has so disrupted the lives of those who love me. How bitter it is to think about my selfishness, my outbursts of despair and anger! I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do except to pray for mercy, for a heart of mercy toward others, for the will to love as I am loved.” (p. 69)
I have contemplated this wonderful book all year, picking it up again and again, reading a section, thinking, and listening to what God may be trying to say. This book is a major reason why I’m proud, in only the best way, to be with Kalos Press.
The Exact Place by Margie Haack
Margie wasn’t going to include this in her gift list, but it’s too good to be left out, so for the first time in history I’m writing something for Notes from Toad Hall. I’m not exactly pulling rank, since we co-direct Ransom, but it’s sort of like that. Don’t worry—she’s resilient and will get over it.
I’m very proud of her for The Exact Place. It’s a beautifully crafted memoir, well-told stories of her childhood, stories that reflect a quiet wisdom nurtured by a lifetime of placing herself within the deeper stories of God’s providence and word. As she tells her stories, something happens in the background, in the hearts and imaginations of those of who read them. We find ourselves reflecting on the significance of place, the meaning of relationships, the pilgrimage of faith, the meaning of life, and the purpose of hard times. Margie is gifted in seeing how extraordinary the ordinary is, and helps us to see with greater clarity as a result.
Margie won’t tell you to buy a copy, and has a tendency to want to give them all away. I would like to retire someday, however, so please buy one. Better yet, make a list of every Christmas, birthday, and anniversary gift you intend to give this year and make those gifts a copy of The Exact Place. You’ll save time, your friends and family will receive something they’ll like, and Margie will feel better about me co-opting this space.
– Denis Haack