Books read in 2021
17. Hearing God through Biblical Meditation by Mark Virkler. Review coming soon.
16. The Beach House by Mary Lou Cheatham. Review coming soon.
15. How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Review coming soon.
14. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Nouwen (1932-1996), a Dutch priest and a renowned spiritual writer, once saw a poster of a detail of Rembrandt’s painting, The Prodigal Son, depicting a robed old man embracing a younger man on his knees before him. The picture moved him deeply; he could not look away from it. For years, the image remained seared into his brain. When he had an opportunity to travel to the Soviet Union, his first thought was to go to the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg to see the original painting in person. A friend’s mother had a contact with an official at the museum, who made it possible for Nouwen to spend several hours over a two-day period sitting, observing, and meditating in front of the painting.
In my lifetime I have heard many sermons about the Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, and I thought I had heard every possible tidbit that could be learned from that story. However, in The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, Nouwen describes the painting and the lessons of the parable in infinite detail, with insights I’ve never heard before.
As a child, I identified with the elder son in the story. I saw myself as a little goodie two-shoes who never did anything wrong. I resented the younger son who screwed up and received his father’s attentive forgiveness. (It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized I was not nearly as good as I credited myself.)
When I was thirteen, I turned away from God until I was thirty. When I returned to God as a prodigal, I thought I truly understood the point of the story—God loves us so much that when we return to Him, he forgives and celebrates.
Nouwen himself first identified with the younger son, until a friend said, “I wonder if you are not more like the elder son,” which made him examine the relationship between the father and his resentful offspring more closely. He gives us a new perception into the father’s answer to the older son’s complaint. To me, it had always sounded defensive, kind of, “yeah, but we have to rejoice, because your brother was lost, and now he’s found.” But Nouwen says,
The harsh and bitter reproaches of the son are not met with words of judgment. There is no recrimination or accusation. The father does not defend himself of even comment on the elder son’s behavior. . . The father’s declaration of unqualified love eliminates any possibility that the younger son is more loved than the elder. The elder son has never left the house. The father has shared everything with him. He has made him part of his daily life, keeping nothing from him. “All I have is yours,” he says. There could be no clearer statement of the father’s unlimited love for his elder son.
Nouwen’s conclusion totally surprised me. He says we all are probably like the younger son at times, and like the older son at other times, but that’s not the point. We should accept the forgiveness and the healing and the love that the father offers, but it doesn’t end there. Jesus challenges us to grow—to become the Father, to be the Father for others, loving, forgiving, healing. This idea resonates with me; I believe Nouwen is correct.
I am delighted when someone takes a Bible story that I’m very familiar with and teaches me something new.
13. The Poets Laureate Anthology edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt. Review here.
12. The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom by Henri J.M. Nouwen. This is a reread for me. I read it last year, a gift from my daughter along with the author’s The Prodigal Son, both of which she found deeply profound.
I have to confess that this book does not have the same impact on me. Nouwen went into therapy during an emotional breakdown, and after each session with his counselors, he wrote an “imperative” to remind himself what he wanted to work on in order to heal. The first time I read the book, I read it straight through, something he warns readers not to do. This second time, I read one small section a day, like a devotional. It still did not touch me as it did my daughter.
The message of the book is that God loves each one of us deeply. We can rely on His love alone; we do not need to crave the love of any other. When we understand that we are loved completely by God, we can have healthy relationships with others, giving without expectation of reciprocation.
I guess I’ve never been hurt as deeply as Nouwen, or I already am confident of God’s love for me. The Inner Voice of Love has helped a lot of people, but it doesn’t do anything for me.
11. From The Moment by Robert Denis Holewinski. The pretty girl on the cover of this book is a high school classmate of mine. I wasn’t close friends with Debbie; but I knew her well enough to return a friendly nod as we passed each other in the hallway.
I reconnected with Deb at our 40th high school reunion eleven years ago, thoroughly charmed while chatting with her and her husband as our class gathered in front of our alma mater. Deb and I became friends on Facebook.
A few years ago she mentioned that her husband is an artist. I took a look at his paintings online and was so impressed that I wrote a blog post about him on ARHtistic License.
Later, she mentioned that her husband had written a book in verse about his experiences as a U.S. soldier in Korea during the Vietnam era. Since my husband was also stationed in Korea around that time, I was very interested to read and review One Year There.
Bob was kind enough to send me three books he’d written, all in verse. Two of them are still in my TBR pile.
Recently he reached out again and offered to send me his books. I told him I had three, but didn’t have his latest one, published in 2017, From The Moment, his and Debbie’s love story told in a collection of poems that he describes as “photos we once gathered.” He kindly sent it to me.
I feel like the Huelsenbecks’ lives have run parallel to the Holewinskis’. We married in 1974; the husbands both enlisted in the army, assuming they’d be sent to Vietnam but ending up in Korea instead; we also lived in New Jersey for much of our lives, near some of the places mentioned in the book. Because of all these connections, the book was a pleasure for me to read. And, frankly, I was curious about Deb and Bob’s love life.
Deb and Bob met for the first time in a church on the eve of Bob’s brother’s wedding. Bob was best man, Deb was maid of honor. Even though Bob was considering entering a Franciscan monastery, from the moment he first laid eyes on Deb, he knew he wanted to live his life with her. The entire book is a celebration of their enduring love and marriage, illustrated with vintage photographs and images of some of Bob’s paintings.
Long marriages are not common in my generation; we’ve done a poor job of modeling life-long marital fidelity to our offspring. The younger generations seem to put off marriage or eshew it altogether.
When people ask me how we’ve managed to stay married all this time (47 years and counting), I say, “we learned how to forgive each other.”
Surprisingly, there is no mention of discord in Holewinski’s book. Either Deb and Bob are the rare couple who have never ever hurt each other, or they have forgiven each other so completely that they’ve moved on together harboring no unpleasant memories.
I enjoyed From The Moment because of my connections to it; but I think it will resonate with anyone whose marriage has stood the test of time. People who are contemplating marriage would do well to read it. I think sometimes people get married for the benefits and perks they expect, rather than for what they are willing to build with their spouse. What should they be willing to give? Everything: their hearts, bodies, dreams. Willing to put the other’s needs before their own. Love keeps on giving. Take a page from Bob’s book.
10. God’s Promises for your Every Need by Word Publishing. When my friend died a few years ago, her husband invited me to come look through her books and take whatever I wanted. This is one of the books I selected.
I started reading it the beginning of this year, one section a day, as a devotional. It’s a collection of excerpts from scripture, the King James Version. King James is not my favorite translation, although I prefer it for certain passages that I memorized that way, such as Psalm 23 and John 3:16.
This is a nice book to have if you don’t mind the King James Version. I was stumped, however, by some of the selections, which did not seem to fit in the category they were filed under. I will be donating this book to my neighborhood Little Free Library.
9. St. Teresa of Avila: A Life Inspired by Wyatt North. I bought this biography of Teresa of Ávila because my daughter thought I’d be interested in Teresa, the Christian mystic. I bought the Kindle version. It’s very brief; the print version is 131 pages. I want more. Next, I’m reading Teresa’s complete works.
8. Day One by Kelly DeVos. This young adult thriller is the sequel to Day Zero, reivewed below. The cast of characters is pretty much the same group as in the first book. The action is told from the viewpoints of two teenaged stepsisters, computer whiz Susan (Jinx) Marshall and the budding journalist MacKenna Novak. Jinx’s dad, Maxwell, was a computer science professor who taught her well. He had a pessimistic view of society, wrote a survivalist handbook, and conducted drills with his family and with students to prepare them for an inevitable doomsday. The political climate in the US grew intense, with a severe economic depression and division between the adherents of the two competing parties, The Spark and The Opposition. Maxwell supported The Opposition, until he suddenly didn’t anymore. Jinx’s mom, Stephanie, a high school history teacher, was ostensibly for The Spark, and eventually divorced Maxwell and married MacKenna’s father, widower and bank security officer Jay Novak. MacKenna’s college student brother, Toby, and Jinx’s younger brother, Charles, complete the blended family. Other characters introduced in the first book come back in the second book as well, and there are a few newbies.
Day One begins about a month after Day Zero ends. DeVos does a good job of setting up the background for the reader, but I don’t want to go into it here, because Day Zero is so good, you should read it first, rather than me spoiling it for you by giving you a quick summary. Let’s just say that a crisis occurred in Day Zero that paralyzed the country, and it became very dangerous for everyone connected with either Maxwell Marshall or Jay Novak (so, basically, the entire family is in mortal danger). A major plot twist at the end of Day Zero shattered the family. Oh, and in Day One civil war breaks out.
Every character has a different goal. Finding Charles, who’s been kidnapped. Proving Jay is innocent of espionage. And preventing a cold fusion bomb from being launched. Sometimes Jinx and MacKenna work together, and sometimes they separate and work at cross purposes, but they and the others all believe they are following their best (and only) possible courses of action. Nothing is as it seems, and nothing goes according to plan.
Day One had me in anxiety all the way through. I identified strongly with Jinx and MacKenna, who, although they don’t always agree, are very idealistic and passionate about doing the right thing. As in the first book, there are multiple plot twists. Every chapter ends on a reversal or a surprise. The pace is rapid, requiring split second decisions of the characters, often without knowing all the facts. The book ends with the three goals being accomplished, but the country is still at war, and a sizable percentage of the characters are dead. I feel that the ending is realistic and satisfying, though not rosy. Day Zero and Day One are both excellent books, well worth reading. Just try not to see all the similarities to our present political situation; it could freak you out.
7. Day Zero by Kelly deVos. This book, published in 2019, gave me chills, because it could have been written about the US in January 2021.
Susan (Jinx) Marshall’s been thrust into a blended family. Her parents’ marriage broke up, mainly due to her father’s survivalist craziness. Her mother, Stephanie, quickly married Jay Novak, a widower with two teenaged children, MacKenna and Toby. Jinx’s little brother Charles, a diabetic, completes the family.
The story begins on Inauguration Day. Ammon Carver, the Opposition candidate, has won in an election some say was stolen. (See what I mean?) Jinx and MacKenna are in history class and Stephanie is their teacher—yes, awkward. After class, Stephanie tells them to go straight home because people are “on edge.” They drive over to the elementary school to pick up Charles, but instead of going straight home, Jinx begs MacKenna to stop at the grocery store for snacks. While they’re there, an explosion demolishes the bank next door and chaos spreads across the country.
What happens next is complicated. Let’s just say conditions in the nation were not good before, but now they’re intense, and both Jinx’s dad and her stepdad are being implicated in the events that unfold. Jinx and MacKenna try to keep their family safe, but soon they’re running for their lives.
This YA thriller is well-written, smart, and fast-paced. The characters are compelling and relatable. Every chapter ends on a twist. It will keep you guessing all the way through. And I was shocked at the end.
Although Day Zero works as a standalone (most of the threads being somewhat resolved at the end), it is the first of a duology. I am reading Day One now, and it is shaping up to be just as good as the first book.
6. Esther’s Gift by Jan Karon. I borrowed this little Christmas book, part of the Mitford series that so captivated me in the 1990s, from the Little Free Library in my neighborhood. Esther Bolick prepares to make a bunch of her legendary orange marmalade cakes to give as Christmas presents. She asks her husband to figure out how much they cost her to make. Gene insists on including a dollar amount for her time, and comes up with a whooping price tag. Esther almost cuts her gift list, since she has a hard time justifying such an extravagant gift for people who have slighted her this year.
For me, reading this book (which came out in 2002 and I’ve never seen or even known about) was like coming home to Mitford. All the familiar characters in the other novels are mentioned, and the down-home dialogue made me nostalgic. However, I can’t see this little book appealing to anyone who doesn’t have a history with the series; the plot is just too lightweight.
5. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. Review here.
4. The Purpose-Driven Life Journal by Rick Warren. I read the original The Purpose-Driven Life many years ago, and when a friend offered me my pick of his wife’s books after she died, this journal was one I selected. Based on The Purpose-Driven Life, the journal has 40 days of readings to meditate on and record your insights. She had never written in it.
I didn’t know if I wanted to, either. In fact, the prompts didn’t generate any words for me, until Day 22 of 40. I’d been using the book as a daily devotional, and I’d already decided to give the book away after I finished it, so at that point, I didn’t write in it either.
I can see how this journal would be valuable to someone who was committed to living according to the precepts in Warren’s book. I copied some excerpts in a notebook I’m keeping about my own journey. I’d recommend reading The Purpose-Driven Life before buying the journal, because it’s condensed from that book, and you’d benefit from the full context; or you might decide the journal is not for you at all.
3. An Artful Life: Inspirational Stories and Essays for the Artist in Everyone by John P. Weiss. For the past few weeks I’ve been reading a chapter or two of this book while I’ve eaten my lunch. The tone of these stories and essays are consistently positive. They provided a great transition to my afternoon writing time.
Weiss is a cartoonist, painter, writer, and retired police chief. I’ve enjoyed his blog for many years, and many of the pieces appeared there first. I wonder if they are all true, or if some are fiction. It doesn’t matter; they are encouraging, thought provoking, and worth reading.
2. Everything Is Spiritual by Rob Bell. For the past year or so, I’ve been studying the Bible with a group who call themselves the Old Heretics. They’ve pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to reevaluate my beliefs. When the pandemic started, our church closed, and Bible study ended for a while. Then we started meeting on Zoom. The group has been a lifeline for me.
Rob Bell is a popular spiritual teacher and the author of eleven books. In 1999, he started Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids in Michigan, which blossomed into a megachurch, and he left it in 2011 to literally take his show on the road. He’s been denounced by conservative Christians as a heretic, but his ideas resonate with truth seekers and with Christians who have become disenchanted with church. When Everything is Spiritual was released this past September, my Bible study group decided to read it together.
Bell studies quantum physics for fun, and has gathered insight about how things in the universe work. To oversimplify it (and probably not do it the justice it deserves—read the book for the real deal), he believes everything in the universe—particles, atoms, ecosystems, people—are made to exist in relationship to every other thing. Everything is interconnected; everything is spiritual.
The book has an unusual structure. Or, maybe it would be more accurate to say that there isn’t one. It’s not divided into chapters. It’s not even divided into paragraphs, exactly. Often it’s formatted more like poetry. That actually makes sense, doesn’t it? Poetry gives words added dimension, additional layers of meaning. It’s like the whole book is rendered in stream of consciousness, and we are witnessing the insights Bell is discovering in real time. There’s some repetition of ideas, and some doubling back and reexamining.
Here’s a tiny excerpt about the role of a pastor:
I came from a world where the job of the spiritual leader was to have the last word on things. To explain it. To tell people what it means. To teach people how to do it.
I was coming to see that my job was to have the first word. To start the discussion. To set the words in motion, so that they could do that mysterious thing they do in all of us.
For me, the first half of the book was exciting as I was bombarded with many of these ideas for the first time. I can’t say I share Bell’s fondness for quantum physics though, and I eventually got bored. The book is 307 pages long, but I really think he could have tightened it down to 200 or 250 coherent pages.
That said, he gave me a lot to mull over and process. I’m not sure I believe everything in this book, but I look forward to reading some of his other titles as well.
1. The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu. I love books with a music or art tie-in. This Young Adult fantasy novel is the story of Nannerl, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s older sister. Their father, Leopold, a composer, recognized their talents and took them to perform at all the royal courts of Europe. That much is true.
But only one of the Mozart children could become a legendary composer. And Nannerl was a girl. How she wished she could leave a legacy, be remembered. But her brother was always the one who was noticed. So precocious. So gifted. So engaging.
One night, Nannerl has a dream, a dream in which she hears a perfect, beautiful melody, one which she tries to recapture after she wakes, but she can’t quite remember it exactly. She also sees a boy at a distance, with a flashing white smile and glowing blue eyes.
For weeks, she catches snatches of sounds that remind her of the melody. She tries to play it at the clavier, but it eludes her.
Woferl (her brother’s nickname) asks her to tell him a story, and so she makes one up from her dream, which takes place in a faraway kingdom where two moons shine in the night sky. The story grows, and she adds more and more details to it.
Little by little, magic enters their lives—edelweiss blooms grow from a page in Nannerl’s notebook; they meet the boy from her dream, a faery princeling named Hyacinth.
Hyacinth promises Nannerl that he can make her wish come true. But she must be willing to help him reclaim the kingdom that has been stolen from him.
If I tell you any more I’ll give the story away. But I will tell you that there is jealousy, and betrayal, and evil, and suspense, and heartache.
This is the first book by Lu that I’ve read; she’s written ten others before this. The Kingdom of Back is good: imaginative and satisfying. I have one problem with it though. Nannerl insists her father would be mad at her if he knew she was composing. However, we never see any evidence of his position; there is never a conversation between the two of them about music composition not being a suitable occupation for women. Woferl several times suggests she show their father her work, but she refuses. Instead, she hides it where she assumes he’ll never find it. That leads to a betrayal, but it’s not clear exactly what happened or who did the betraying; Nannerl jumps to a conclusion. I know I’m being obtuse, but I’m trying not to give away a major plot point.