Reading Recommendations

sunsetAfter a recent speaking engagement, I was asked for some book recommendations. Having expended a great deal of mental energy into the talks I’d just given, I felt a little brain dead and came up with only a few favorites. I did recall and mention, however, this earlier post that includes a variety of nonfiction related to literature as well as some fiction (both CBA and literary). That earlier post also talks about starting a book club.

Because I wrote that post several years ago, it’s definitely time for an update.  I also need to clarify something I said in front of the group. I spoke about finding one of Lynn Austin‘s books particularly meaningful when it described the struggle of Dutch settlers, and I’m pretty sure I gave an incorrect title. The book I was referring to is Waves of Mercy. But if you picked up Wings of Refuge, you’re also enjoy reading about how a woman’s archaeological adventure leads to a new understanding of the Middle East and her marriage. Lynn is a humble, godly woman who reminds me of Elisabeth Elliot.

Another favorite author in the Christian fiction genre is Ann Tatlock. In Every Secret Thing, a teacher learns how to cope with the present when she learns how to deal with the past. I’ll Watch the Moon is about a girl’s growing maturity while her brother is hospitalized with polio.

Jeanette Windle grew up as a missionary kid and spent many adult years in missionary contexts in foreign countries. This real life experience lends verisimilitude to her suspenseful books, and her painstaking research results in such remarkably accurate descriptions that she has been questioned by drug enforcement agencies about how she knew so much about their work.

I haven’t read any of the Amish novels written by Dale Cramer, but I enjoy the blue-collar male protagonists in some of his other books. One of my favorites is his Bad Ground, which is a coming of age novel with a young man who learns about work and relationships. His Summer of Light is a delightful novel about an unemployed husband and father who discovers a lot about himself and his family.

When it comes to literary fiction, the first name that comes to mind is Larry Woiwode. I had the privilege of participating in a week-long fiction workshop under his direction a few years ago (you can find my posts about that here, here, here, here, and here). Larry’s published works include novels, a memoir, and helpful books on writing.

Another literary author is Wendell Berry, creator of novels set in the fictitious town of Port William, Kentucky. His Hannah Coulter is a realistic portrayal of a woman’s long and difficult life.

Bret Lott has written many literary novels as well as an excellent book on writing, Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian.

Charles Martin is a fresh voice who skillfully constructs his plots in a way that keeps the reader guessing. I love When Crickets Cry, and I’m pretty excited to see the movie based on his The Mountain Between Us. 

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is one of my favorite novels. I love its imagery and mystery. I’m not a huge fan of her other fiction, but this one shines with luminous writing.

Island of the World by Michael O’Brien is a beautiful and tragic book about great loss with healing through faith. This is a difficult book to read, but one that shows redemption through Christ.

To Kill a Mickingbird by Harper Lee may be my favorite American novel. I also enjoy several Victorian authors, especially Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope.

I hope you find these reading recommendations helpful. Feel free to leave a comment. If you’re interested in my work, hop over to my new author page on Facebook and comment there.

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Renewed Strength

This morning, two of my favorite Scripture texts became real to me as never before. You probably love these passages as well. The first is Isaiah 40:28–31.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.

The second similar text is Psalm 103:1–5.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

 
All my adult life, I’ve considered these as beautiful, meaningful, and true verses. But they hadn’t come to expression in my life. I knew God did all these things in the figurative sense, even in the literal sense for some people. I saw God blessing me in many of these ways over and over; however, I felt older and weaker as I aged.

Yesterday was particularly brutal for some reason. Perhaps recent grief sapped my physical strength. Maybe my adrenaline reserves had been depleted. I suspect I’m fighting off a cold. Whatever the reasons, my physical strength seemed at an especially low ebb. Immediately after dinner, I fell asleep in my recliner. I woke and spent a brief time on the computer, before stumbling to bed at 10:00.

cloudy-skiesAnd I felt just as exhausted when I woke this morning. Although I’d slept fairly well, I was still tired. I crafted some correspondence and did a little online research that initially seemed a waste of precious time. Then I did my devotions.

I’m reading The One Year Chronological Bible, published by Tyndale, and I finished Job this morning. I absolutely love that book of the Bible! I love God’s direct speech to a mere mortal: “Brace yourself like a man” (Job 38:3, 40:7). I love God’s vivid imagery and relentless litany describing His power and sovereignty.

We’re all a bit like Job at times. When we suffer with no apparent cause, a niggling part of our sinful nature would like to give God a piece of our mind. Certainly, we’re tempted to ask, “Why?” But as someone once suggested to my husband and me, better questions to ask God might be, “What do You want to teach me through this?” and “How do You want me to serve You in this?”

As I spent time communing with God after my Bible reading, I realized how my earlier correspondence and online research had piqued my literary interests and fueled my flagging creativity.

The more I thought and prayed, the more I became aware of God’s blessings in my life and His awesome power. Is anything too hard for the God who laid the earth’s foundation and marked off its dimensions, who stretched a measuring line across it and laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy (Job 38:4–7)?

My spirit was refreshed and my strength renewed. I felt as eager to tackle my work as a war horse spoiling for battle (Job 39:19–25). I’m rising on eagle wings.

The Delight and Truth of Fiction

flaming-mapleWilliam Boekestein, pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI, was recently appointed as the social media coordinator for Reformed Fellowship, publisher of the The Outlook. In his continuing task to help Reformed Fellowship build an online presence and engage meaningful internet discussion, he posted yesterday (October 20, 2016) a link to my article on Fiction’s Delight and Truth.

I wrote the article over a year ago, and it appeared in 2015’s November issue. At the risk of sounding like a presidential candidate, I felt then and I still feel it is one of the best things I’ve ever written. In my defense, I submit what Leland Ryken (longtime professor of English at Wheaton College) wrote after I shared it with him:

Your essay is what I call a moon shot in my classes. It is absolutely perfect as a complete coverage of the material in a small compass. Congratulations on work well done. You did it better than I could have.

Considering Leland’s prolific writings on the subject and his astounding output as an author, I take this as the highest compliment. And I give all praise and glory to God, the I AM who writes all our stories as part of His great and never-ending story.

 

 

Fiction’s Delight and Truth

2015-06-nov-dec-outlook-coverAn article I wrote about why Christians should read fiction appears in the November issue of The Outlook. You can page through this online preview to read that article as well as a lovely review of my Matthew books.

Thief of Glory by Sigmund Brouwer

Image from sigmundbrouwer.com

Does the concept of popular literature seem like an oxymoron? Can a book sell well in today’s pop culture, while still displaying a high degree of literary quality?

The answer is a resounding: Yes! This week I read a newly released book by prolific author Sigmund Brouwer that evidences excellent literary quality and is sure to skyrocket off the sales charts.

Thief of Glory engages the reader from its gripping beginning to its satisfying end, barely allowing anything beyond shallow breathing during the riveting middle. The narrative is written from the perspective of an elderly man forced to record his childhood memories of WW II years spent in a Japanese concentration camp in the Dutch East Indies. He begins with a paragraph that sings:

A banyan tree begins when its seeds germinate in the crevices of a host tree. It sends to the ground tendrils that become prop roots with enough room for children to crawl beneath, prop roots that grow into thick, woody trunks and make it look like the tree is standing above the ground. The roots, given time, look no different than the tree it has begun to strangle. Eventually, when the original support tree dies and rots, the banyan develops a hollow central core (Thief of Glory, p. 1).

That’s lovely writing, but the reader finishing the story realizes how masterfully Brouwer crafted those opening lines.

I’ve written a book review that I hope will appear in an upcoming issue of Christian Renewaland which I intend to post here after publication. But I wanted to mention this novel now and encourage all writers to read it. After I read an extremely well-written book, I often shut it and think, “I may as well give up writing altogether.”

I felt a bit of this when I finished Thief of Glory, but primarily it encouraged me that Christians can write stellar books for popular consumption. Books that shine with literary quality while subtlety conveying faith and truth.

Sigmund Brouwer excels at writing for the popular market. For more information about him, check out his about page on his website or look up his Amazon author page.

Writers resources

clouds-geeseSusan Olasky regularly posts Web Reads on the WORLD magazine website. Among the fascinating links she posted at the end of this terrific article about Elisabeth Elliot is The Write Life’s list of 100 Best Websites for Writers in 2014.

I’ve only had time to scroll through because these days I’m focused on preparing several speaking presentations, but many of the links pique my interest.

For weeks we’ve been seeing geese, flying in formation and heading south. I have no idea why they continue to fly south this time of year, which seems odd and depressing. The picture accompanying this brief post is my attempt to think spring. If you click on the image, you’ll see geese, and they’re flying north.

Lit! An elliptical book review

You say you’re not a reader? Readers are made, not born. Like anything else, we learn to do it through practice. You read a lot or you want to read more, but you feel like you need direction? Look to the light of Lit! by Tony Reinke.

The title is a clever play on words that intentionally conveys Reinke’s basic premise: appreciation for good literature, which reflects the Creator’s glory, shines in the flood lamp of a biblical worldview. Now don’t roll your eyes and click away, dismissing Lit! as a boring theological tome. It’s title also shows this is a short, easy read that engages and challenges.

I may have heard first about this book from Tim Challies, perhaps in a Facebook status update, but I’m not sure how I came across it. Tim has written at least three posts mentioning the book, and gives 5 reasons to read it. And The Gospel Coalition (TGC) blog features an interesting interview with Tony Reinke.

In any case, I purchased Lit! several months ago and sent it to my husband’s Kindle, but didn’t find time to read it until this month. That’s when I began reading Kindle books in bite-sized pieces as a way to force myself onto a newly-acquired used (and very old) elliptical. Lit! has short, easily-digested chapters that lend themselves well to these brief elliptical reading episodes.

Reinke doesn’t write like a theologian, but he writes from a solid biblical foundation. He doesn’t write like a professor, but he writes about literature from a broad liberal (in the academic sense) perspective. Reinke writes like a regular guy who comes up with unique phrases.

Take this hook from his introduction, for instance:

Perhaps you love to read. You get the same feeling from a new stack of books as you get from looking at a warm stack of glazed donuts. Maybe not. For most, reading a book is like trying to drink down a huge vitamin. You know you need to read—you’ll be healthier for it—but everything within you refuses to swallow! (p. 15)

Or this gem as he describes different bookstore experiences:

My hanging head notices an eight-hundred-page Russian novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The book cover is beautifully designed, the book was translated into English with great care (according to a friend of mine), and the novel is reasonably priced. My eye has caught the spine of this book many times before, and I’ve nearly purchased it on several of my frequent trips to the bookstore. But it’s also a very thick book that asks me for a serious commitment. And I’m already married! (p. 22)

Reading Lit! is almost an interactive experience. It’s like sitting across the coffee shop table from Reinke as he sips a hot latte and punctuates his sentences with expressive waves. When he dropped the names of old friends Anne Bradstreet, Leland Ryken, and Larry Woiwode, I actually spoke aloud: “Ah!”—which is elliptical shortspeech for, “Oh, you know him (her) too?”

The first part of the book presents a theology of books and reading. Reinke lays a scriptural and historical foundation before he recounts how personal sin and the gospel shape literacy. He then talks about developing a biblical worldview in an “Eye-Candy” culture.

Chapters 5 & 6 conclude his first section and contain the information I found most valuable. “The Giver’s Voice” presents seven accessible arguments for reading non-Christian books with discernment. Reinke writes, “As book readers, we are mistaken when we categorically reject non-Christian books. And we are mistaken when we read non-Christian literature uncritically” (p. 77). He reflects on John Calvin’s wisdom in this area, finding his model “generous, cautious, and sobering” (p. 77).

In his chapter, “The God Who Slays Dragons,” Reinke speaks about “The Purifying Power of Christian Imagination”:

The imagination is a God-given ability to receive truth and meaning. In an essay, C. S. Lewis wrote, “For me reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.” Using fantasy in literature does not make a story fictitious; it’s often a more forceful way to communicate truth” (p. 87).

Fiction writers strive to write what’s true. While that may seem an oxymoron to some, discerning readers understand that truth shines bright in the best fiction.

The second part of Lit! gives practical advice on book reading, all of which can be implemented easily. Although I still cringe at his advice to write in your books. I understand the logic and wisdom behind his argument, but I haven’t quite summoned the strength to jump over my defacement hurdle. Maybe if I work out a little longer on the elliptical.

If you’re looking for a quick but thought-provoking read about reading, pick up Reinke’s Lit! And see the light.

The above book review by Glenda Mathes is on:

Lit! © 2011 by Tony S. Reinke
Published by Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois
186 pages

Telling the story eclipses intention and audience

hills

Compressing everything I learned during my intensive Glen West workshop into brief blog posts seems impossible. But I can give you a taste through small samples.

Last Friday, I focused on the first day and wrote about beginning to write by writing. Two of the many literary terms we discussed on subsequent workshop days were intention and audience.

Our workshop leader Larry Woiwode didn’t seem particularly keen on the concept of authorial intention. “The critic never knows the writer’s intention,” he said. “The only person who can know your intention is God. Saying you know the intention of the author is promoting yourself.” He added, “Write to tell a story, not to convey intention.”

He wasn’t a big fan of writing for a particular audience either. “Don’t worry about who you’re writing for,” he said. “Do the best you can and it will find the audience.”

Do you see a pattern? Woiwode stressed expending your best effort in telling your story. “Tell the story properly,” he urged. “Do the best you can.” He described a well-written story as one that “has dimension under it,” saying, “We feel underneath it the thought that conceived it, compressed it.” He spoke of “the story beyond the story,” which “you want the reader to think about for the next week.”

I believe it’s accurate to say that, for Woiwode, story-telling trumps intention and audience.

Literature or fiction?

man on shelvesLately I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a novel rise above the level of merely well-written fiction to become a literary work.

A novel can consist of technically flawless writing, but be as bland as a piece of white toast. So it must tell a good story. It’s also true that a novel can convey an engaging story in a mechanically accurate manner without the writing rising to a high literary quality. So the writing must surpass grammatical accuracy and correct construction to demonstrate literary skill. But literary skill does not consist of simply inserting techniques like simile and metaphor. Some of the worst writing I’ve read abounds with vivid and original similes. Literary techniques are counter-productive, however, when they become obvious and distract the reader.

I know a good book when I read one. And reading great literature is probably the best way to begin recognizing good literature. But I want to go much further in learning how to recognize and write literary work. Is this a skill that can be taught or is it simply intuitive?

Recently I’ve participated in some interesting chats on literary subjects, but I’d like to expand the conversation. Would you like to weigh in? What aspects do you believe lift writing to a literary level? Feel free to comment.

The Help, book review

BOOK REVIEW by Glenda Mathes 

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

© 2009 by Kathryn Stockett

Berkley Books: New York, NY, 534 pp.

 

While The Help tells about black domestics working for white housewives in Jackson, MS, during the 1960s, it also shows how a young woman loses her naiveté and her place in Southern society, but gains some soul.  

Stockton knows her subject, having grown up in a Mississippi home with a loving black woman who cooked and cleaned for the family while caring for and encouraging her.

She writes the novel primarily through believable first person accounts: two very different black women (Aibileen and Minny) who are close friends and one young socialite (Miss Skeeter) who recently returned home after graduating from college. Although the book begins and ends in Aibileen’s point of view, most of it is from Skeeter’s perspective as she fails to fit back into social circles and her mother’s expectations, while covertly interviewing domestics and writing a book about their experiences.

The genuine danger of the enterprise becomes more and more clear as the author mentions deaths, beatings, or mutilations and refers to real incidents of racial persecution during the volatile 60s.

Black women who work for white women are commonly and generically referred to as “the help,” a label that lacks both humanity and individuality. It’s no surprise that many white employers treat their black employees badly, but there are others who care about and care for them. Stocktondoesn’t ignore the good while portraying the bad, and she doesn’t sensationalize excesses while describing accepted behaviors.

Southern women are known for their gracious hospitality, but Stockton also depicts their vindictive exclusivity. One vicious young woman controls the accepted social group and exerts undue influence over her friends and their “help,” but is especially nasty to the young woman—considered poor white trash—who married her former boyfriend. The climax of that conflict appears in Chapter 25, “The Benefit,” which is an exception to the point of view rule by being written in the third person. Unusual graphic lines between text and margins help differentiate it from the other chapters.

The Help has gotten a lot of hype. It’s been a #1 bestseller on the New York Times list and been made into a movie, so it’s possible to read it with expectations that are too high. Readers who come to it with lower expectations may enjoy it more. It is definitely a story about how small efforts can make a big difference toward racial reconciliation. But like To Kill a Mockingbird, to which it is often compared, it is about much more than racial prejudice. At the risk of sounding like a literary deconstructionist (which I’m not), each reader will bring his or her own preconceptions to this narrative that will generate different nuances of meaning.

As a writer, I strongly identified with Skeeter’s clueless desire to write as well as her exhausting marathon to meet impossible deadlines and her agonizing wait to hear back from a publisher.

As a reader, who happens to be a Christian, I latched onto Skeeter’s reflection near the end of the book: “Lately I’ve found myself praying, when I’ve never been a very religious person. I find myself whispering long, never-ending sentences to God, begging for Mother to feel some relief, pleading for good news about the book, sometimes even asking for some hint of what to do about Stuart. Often I catch myself praying when I didn’t even know I was doing it” (p. 432). In my mind, these are the novel’s most crucial sentences.

I put the book down, very early one morning, with the feeling that Skeeter will be all right, not because of what she’s done or what she’s going to do, but because of who she talks to about it.