Because I read Americanah, and now I need to talk about it

I heart Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie (aside from the fact that she’s my age and clearly more talented and accomplished than I am, and so I’m also jealous, but because I love her so much, I’ll get over it). (Also, she’s the reason I went to the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin a couple of years ago.)

I love that when I see Africa through her eyes, I don’t see a country with wide-eyed, starving children and Maasai jewelry and giraffes but a country with people who love and work and hurt and envy and learn and strive and struggle and triumph. I see people who have dignity and who fail.

I love that when I read her stories I don’t see people who are exactly like me. Most of the time, I can’t relate to the people. I haven’t lived in their situations. I don’t know what it’s like.

I love the textures of her writing–the images, the smells, the humor. So many of the places she writes about are foreign to me, and they are at once foreign, unrecognizable and intimate. And when she writes of a place I know, reading her words is like opening a family photo album.

I love that her stories stick to me like ice cream to my hips. I love that they make me think and see things in a new way.

Which brings me to Americanah, a story about Ifemelu, a Nigerian who moves to America for seventeen years before returning home. Her divergent experiences in Nigeria, first as a teenager then as a working woman, and in America, as a student and writer (blogger, actually) gives her a sense of acute observations but keeps her removed from a sense of truly belonging anywhere. And because of this, she is in some sense unknowable, mostly to herself. We could talk about Ifemula as a blogger (leans toward “self-righteous”, as Obinze says or “judgmental” as other friends criticize her of, but she says, “She felt subsumed by her blog. She had become her blog”) as a girlfriend (perhaps here also, she felt subsumed, she felt as if she became the person she was supposed to be with the man she was with, except for Obinze, of course; she says of Blaine, “Sometimes she felt like his apprentice”), as an African, as an American citizen (a non-American black living in America), as a woman, as a human. As Obinze said, “She was not easy to predict.” She is not familiar but familiar, complex but aren’t her desires to be loved and known common to us all? (“She had never had this before, to be listened to, to be truly heard, and so he became newly precious.”)

This story is about ideas, but just when I start to get exasperated about all the ideas (and is this just a way for Adichie to talk about her thoughts on the subject?), Ifemelu eats a non-fair trade chocolate bar as a form of rebellion when she and a boyfriend fight and draws me back to her as a character.

(And then there are those observations that make me laugh at myself: “I read a piece about this new movement among the American privileged classes. Where people want to drink milk straight from the cow,” because, yes, I drink raw milk.)

The story revolves around complexities in race and racism and belonging.

And so now I want to talk about these things. I want to talk about race and racism and belonging.

Two Saturdays ago, Chris and I went to Jeff Dunham’s show. It was fantastically funny and horribly offensive. As we left, I told Chris that comedians have a role in society of making papier-mâché piñatas of our rule books so that we can get past what we’re supposed to say and not supposed to say and talk about things in real ways.

I want to talk about things in real ways, meaning, I want to know how we can talk about these things in ways that cut through political correctness and in ways that help me understand the experience of those who know racism. I don’t have any delusions of fixing any problems. I just want a taste of understanding people who have had an entirely different experience of America (and the world) than I’ve had.

Obinze says of his wife, “He had never tried, because he knew that the questions he asked of life were entirely different from hers.” I don’t want this to be how I see people and relationships. I don’t want to settle for stereotypes. I want to know individuals.

Because though the story revolves around race and racism and belonging, it’s really about relationships and love (in all its forms).

Ifemelu distances herself from her world(s) in her blogs. She’s an observer. Maybe this is how she makes sense of not belonging. This is the nature–and danger–of blogging. We become observers who make witty (catty) comments, safely and distantly offering our expertise and experience and often offending fellow humans. We often write for unknown readers more than the people in our families and churches and neighborhoods whom we see every day.

I don’t want to be safe anymore.

I don’t yet know what this means, but over the next several blog posts, I’ll be talking about things inspired by Americanah, and I’m desperately hoping that friends, family, neighbors near and far will guide me through this experience.

The peculiarity of writing

I read this post the other day, The Romance of Certain Old Books by D.G. Myers, and found myself wanting to underline phrases and sentences in his post, which, of course, I couldn’t.

He says, “I can’t be alone (can I?) in finding something romantic about the ‘forgotten’ or ‘neglected’ books of the past.” (No, Dr. Myers, you’re not.)

And then he says, “Books could be time machines, but rarely are. They are sadly familiar to us, because they are canonical; that is, because we read them in the present, with the standards and expectations of the present, as towering figures of the present. To be borne into the past, boats beating against the current, the best books are those which are least familiar.”

I could spend the rest of the post quoting Mr. Myers, but it would be better if you read his post. If you still have time, come back and read this post to appease me.

It reminded me of some thoughts I’d once had (Going Small).

It also reminded me of this piece in The New Yorker, ”To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers about a woman’s life with a book, which, when she finds it, is relatively unknown. (I include this reference to prove that some times–or at least, at one time–I read intellectual pieces, and it makes me feel better.)

A tidbit of the story (which I must include because now that I’ve found it to give you the title and author, I ended up rereading it [and still loving it, though in a different way than my first few read-throughs, which is exactly what the story is about, so maybe there's something in that]; also, while digging through old journals to find this story, I discovered an unread journal with fiction in it by Larry Woiwode, so score):

The book turns up in a junk shop in an old Saxon market town whose name you will remember as almost certainly having an “m” in it. Among the rusted baby buggies and ancient radios you find old cooking magazines, books on fly-tying and photography, late-fifties spy novels with cardboard covers worn as soft as felt. The thing pops out at you: “To the Measures Fall,” by someone named Elton Wentworth. There’s nothing else like it in the shop. It’s a fat tome with rough-cut pages in a deluxe, tooled binding…A 12-inch LP runs only a pound, and even a two-minute call to the States is cheaper than Mr. Wentworth’s book. Half a guinea for a used novel you’ve never heard of? Robbery. But something about that opening is too strange for you to resist (emphasis mine).

And isn’t this exactly the best way to discover books, especially ones that become part of your life?


And then there’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which is more along the lines of my reading material these days, when Morris “found a lonely little volume whose tale was seldom told. ‘Everyone’s story matters,’ said Morris.”

I think of days browsing my parents’ bookshelves as a teenager, finding books not assigned in school and unknown to my friends, books I fell in love with anyway. I think of the times I perused yard sales for a treasure. (This was before I had kids, which disallowed the act of perusing.) I think of the volumes passed down to me when my great aunt died, books all but forgotten to the rest of the world, books trapped by a certain time but finding a life and friends on my bookshelf.

(I think of the painting my great-grandfather painted, which hung above the hamper at the top of the steps at my grandparents’ house and which I loved, but which disappeared after my grandmother died and which is forever lost and neglected.)

I also think of my reading as of late–how I’ve fallen in love especially with international fiction, how I want to read something unfamiliar not because I want to escape my reality but because I want to broaden my reality. Because I want to give my imagination new realms.

Inevitably, this leads to a consideration of my own writing (because doesn’t everything lead back to me?). I look at this collection of short stories nesting on my computer. Who wants to read a story about a 68-year-old woman who learns how to play chess, I think, or an adopted teenaged girl who meets the ghost of her biological mother, or a woman who accidentally turns her boss into a frog during Hurricane Sandy?

These are not the types of stories populating Best American Short Stories. They are not the stories of the young and emerging. They’re not in L.A. or New York City. They’re not about dotcoms or ghettos.

I think about a novel I once wrote which almost went somewhere but then didn’t, and because I’m a different writer now than I was then, I no longer even want to publish this novel, but I can’t forget Marnie, the protagonist, and I wonder if she’ll be among the neglected and forgotten. (In my more hopeful moments, I imagine giving her a new story and setting her free, and I think, isn’t this a sort of redemption? But that’s a different thought for a different day. Really, it is. I should note it somewhere.)

I don’t mean this as a pity party. I only mean to say that perhaps, like some of the books in Morris Lessmore’s world, they are “lonely volumes whose tale was seldom told.” I mean to say that these are my stories, with all their peculiarity, and some days that’s enough, and maybe a little girl will happen upon them one day and see something, maybe familiar (if she once turned someone into a frog) or unfamiliar, and maybe for a moment, these characters who are so dear to me won’t be forgotten.

Book Thoughts: At Every Turn by Anne Mateer

Once again, Anne Mateer has given us a strong (and strong-willed!) female character who you can’t help but love. Alyce Benson, moved by compassion for children in Africa, pledges $3000 dollars to the missionaries working in the Gold Coast. One problem: the money isn’t hers to give, and her father is none too sympathetic to Christian causes. She must find a way to raise the money on her own. She uses the one skill she can: driving. Alyce begins competing in car races in Chicago and Indianapolis.

Intriguing and unusual as it is to have a female driver in Indy in present day, it was even more unusual (and slightly against regulations) to have a female driver in 1916.

More than an interesting story, Mateer delves into hubris, ideas of Christian calling and vocation, and views of Christian women and propriety.

I have two small quibbles with the book related to the love interest. While in her debut novel, Wings of a Dream, Mateer gave us an unpredictable yet inevitable love story, the love story in At Every Turn is more transparent and some of the elements (i.e. suspicions others plant in Alyce about the two love interests) more forced. Also, given the nature and discussion and the place, propriety, and role of Christian women, I would have liked to have seen some time and focus given to the idea of women serving independently of marriage. The story too easily gave into pressures of finding a husband in order to fully serve God. I understand that this was 1916, but many women have historically served in missions and at home as single women.

One final thing: in contrast to Wings, At Every Turn tied things up too neatly in the end. I felt more time was needed on some character changes (specifically with more minor character), or perhaps left more open to those changes.

But overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book–a character who desperately wants to serve God and searches for how she is uniquely gifted to do so in a world where she fits in more in “the man’s realm” than the flirtatious husband searches of her classmates.

Book Thoughts: Nothing to Hide by J. Mark Bertrand

While gallivanting through the beaches of Oahu, I made my way through a book called Nothing to Hide by J. Mark Bertrand, the third in his Roland March series. It would be the perfect summer read except it at times made you forget where you were, which is not a good thing if you happen to be on a beach in Hawaii. (On the other hand, it is a very good thing when on the plane ride home from said beach in Hawaii.)

Detective Roland March has moved from police corruption (Back on Murder) to serial murder (Pattern of Wounds) to international conspiracy, or something like that (Nothing to Hide). And this latest is his darkest book yet. As Bertrand did with Pattern of Wounds (where March argues in the book that serial killers don’t happen like the TV shows even while solving a serial killer case), he neatly gets around the really?-international-conspiracy? question by noting that only crazies believe in conspiracy and this doesn’t really happen, yet it’s staring us in the face. But no matter. We all enjoy a good thriller anyway.

In this case, March and his partner have a decapitated body with a de-skinned hand pointing to something. This body guides March into the undercover worlds of FBI and Mexican cartels, albeit with less finesse than Virgil’s guidance through the underworld. As March works out the details of the case, he tries to make his way through tricksters. In such a world, whom do you trust? Who are the good guys? Bertrand excels at clean, fast-paced prose fitting for a no-nonsense detective who knows his way around guns.

Amazingly enough, he brings this classic detective novel genre together with medieval literature, especially Dante’s Divine Comedy. While we play detective along with March, what makes this book notable is Bertrand’s exposition on sin (especially hubris, what some might consider the basis for all other sin), the fall, and our place in a fallen world. For March, the messiness of fighting for right in a twisted world is embodied in a bum leg resulting from a fall on the first page of the book (Nobody’s Fool, anyone?): “The pain I’ve been fighting since the fall. The blade goes in deep and starts twisting. It saws back and forth in my vertebrae, slices down the back of my left thigh. Whatever I do to ease the pain only makes it sharper.” And sometimes it seems that whatever we do in this world to ease its pain only worsens it. As March reflects, “The world had long since fallen into the ditch, but that didn’t mean we belonged there, caked in mud.” How do we fight for justice, playing the hero, without our own hubris getting in the way? We fight the sin and corruption in the world alongside the sin and corruption in us.

I highly recommend this series (and I recommend starting at book one: Nothing to Hide resurrects story lines and characters from Back on Murder, which I sometimes had a hard time keeping up with since, you know, I’ve had a child since reading the first book two years ago). The books are entertaining and engaging on all levels.

10 Favorite Fiction Books

I’m joining Sarah again for her 10 Books week. Today: 10 fiction books that I read over and over.

Only 10? Deep breath.

I decided to think about books that have shaped and influenced who I am both as a person and as a writer (are those two different things?). I love so many books, consider so many characters close friends. This is like listing your ten favorite people in the world. Ever. For your whole entire life. Who do you strike from that list? Nonetheless, I endeavor to make a limited list.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery – Obviously. I’m sure you fell out of your chair when you saw this title topping my list. How could you expect otherwise from the girl who thinks herself to be–and in some ways is, thank you very much (what do you think the “A” in Heather A. Goodman stands for?)–Anne-with-an-E. Need I say more?

Nancy Drew Mystery Stories : The Secret of The Old Clock and The Hidden Staircase by Carolyn Keene (who turns out to be a collection of authors, much to my disappointment) – So there I was at a highfalutin writer’s conference with Pulitzer Prize winning speakers and other amazing authors (i.e. Chimamanda Adichie, see below), and what do I buy? A Nancy Drew T-shirt. So much for keeping up appearances. I read my mom’s copies of the first 20-odd books in the series, and now these same copies (which you’re not getting back, Mom, sorry) have a place of honor in my home. When I began writing in elementary school, I wrote murder mysteries because I thought it delicious the way things loomed in Nancy Drew books.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – I want to be Anne, but I’m probably more like Jo (or perhaps a mixture of both). When I think of my journey as a writer, I compare it to Jo’s. When I think of the dreams I had of Europe and the adventure of my life now, I think of Jo. She and Anne guide me through life.

(At some point, I should move on to “adult” books. But not quite yet.)

The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis – I loved the Narnia series, although, to be honest, I wouldn’t argue that they’re the best written books ever. Still, they shaped me. For some reason, this book, the prequel, though I read it last because it’s last in my childhood set, stands out more than the others. Going back and discovering the beginnings of things fascinated me. You can do that as a writer? my young mind thought. Astonishing.

Fahrenheit 451: A Novel by Ray Bradbury – I fell in love first with Dandelion Wine and Martian Chronicles before coming to Fahrenheit. I read the first two in a series my English teacher created with Aldous Huxley (loved Brave New World as well) and George Orwell (Animal Farm? Meh. I know. I’m probably heretical or at least unAmerican for saying that). A year later she introduced us to Clarisse. I understood Clarisse’s love for books and the sacrifice she would make.

Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo – What can I say? I love, love, love this book. I listened to the audio version of it years ago. The day it finished, I was running in the park and sobbing because what was I going to do without Sully now? I still wonder how he’s doing. (And you know what? It’s time to check on him–aka reread the book.) In some ways, I can’t tell you what draws me to this book. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything spectacular about it: a blue-collar worker (who, in real life I probably wouldn’t like, to be honest) in an everyday small-town setting who does nothing fantastic. It’s like the Seinfeld of the literary world in some ways (except it’s not really about nothing; then again, neither was Seinfeld). He confronts his ghosts, and you learn to love this gruff man who seemingly tries to push everyone away.

Pride and Prejudice: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) by Jane Austen – Yes, I’m that girl, and I’m that cliche. What can I say? I love her spunk.

Digging to America by Anne Tyler – And not just because her name is Anne-with-an-E. Like Russo’s writing, this novel is deceptively simple, and it turns out that it’s not simple at all. It’s complex and delicate and sensitive and moving. I struggled between this one and Back When We Were Grownups, but in the end, I think I love this one a little more. Her characters are rich, quirky without being token or dismissive, and complex. Tyler writes with the kind of humor that comes from knowing people. I love that she writes about the grandness of everyday, seemingly small lives, and I love that in this book, she tackles ethnicity and friendships that you’d never expect.

And two new favorites:

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender – I came to Bender and Adichie (see below) via their short stories. Their writing captivates me and challenged me: you can do this, I think when I read them. I love Bender’s surrealism, and I love the weirdness and tenderness of her characters.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie – I’d hate Adichie if I didn’t love her writing so much. She and I are the same age, so of course, I’m full of jealousy. She’s an amazing writer, and I want to sit in her books and drink in everything: her descriptions, her characters and how they develop, the rhythms and movement of her writing. This book deeply moved me. It’s the story of a war, but it’s not the story of a war. It’s the story of the people in this war and how the war changed them. Really, it’s the stories of the people in this war because Adichie is able to show so many perspectives from so many different backgrounds and tie them together. You have to read this book. Seriously. If you don’t, we can’t be friends. Yes, I feel that strongly about it.

Honorable mentions: I’ve gotten into the writings of Jennifer Egan and Jonathan Safran Foer the past several years, and I’ll mention them here because they too are challenging me to look at what I can do with writing, with stories, with characters. I think they’re changing me as a writer, though only time will tell that.

Isn’t it amazing what we can do with 26 characters? Infinite possibilities of building words and sentences and ideas and books. I’m in awe of these small tools and how they’ve shaped me.

Books That Shaped My Faith

This week, Sarah Bessey is doing a 10 Books theme. In yesterday’s post, she shared 10 books that changed her faith. I’m a chronic bookshelf peruser (which I discussed in a recent post), so I love this idea of perusing one another’s shelves virtually.

(Side note: I’ll also join her on Thursday to talk about 10 fiction books because you know I can’t resist talking fiction, and we’ll return to the Church 101 series next week.)

About her post, Sarah says, “I wanted to share these ten books because they actually changed how I experience and understand God, and then, how I live my life in response.”

I don’t know that I can say this about the books I list below. I had a hard time thinking of books that actually changed how I experience and understand God because though I may read these books alone, I think about faith and theology in community. In other words, I’m not sure when the books themselves changed me or when God happened to bring them into my life as I was thinking and discussing about these things with others.

So I’m tweaking Sarah’s idea and talking about the books that have marked a change in my faith in some way. These books have helped shaped my faith, but not alone. Also, with a few exceptions, I limited myself to books I’ve read recently, as in the past 10 years. To go beyond that would’ve been an overwhelming and impossible task. These are the books that I’ve told others they have to, have to, have to read. I put copies in their hands. I emailed or blogged about these books. Most of them are on my dearly-loved bookshelf in my bedroom.

Without further ado, my books:

The Gospel of Luke: Teaching through this book recently slayed me (so much so, that I decided to gather these thoughts in the Church 101 series [shameless plug]). Luke (as do all the gospel writers, and really, all the NT writers) presents a life-changing, radical gospel message that reaches into and transforms every area of life (this one as well as the resurrected one). It compelled me to ask how I’m serving God’s kingdom in my comfortable suburban life. Okay, I could go on and on (and do in other posts), so I’ll shut up now.

The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Canto) by C.S. Lewis – This book influenced how I regard culture and epistemology. It changed how I approach the Bible and truth, not because truth has changed but because I began to understand that I come to it with my own biases and premises. This book also helped me fall in love with the historic church because of how it has helped shape Christianity over 2000 years. (Two other books that shaped this area: A Matrix of Meanings: finding God in pop culture (Engaging Culture) by Craig Detweiler and Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (The Church and Postmodern Culture) by James K.A. Smith.)

Character of Theology, The: An Introduction to Its Nature, Task, and Purpose by John Franke – This is another book that shaped how I approach theology. I could have listed it under Discarded Image but it deserves it’s own mention.

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright – So confession: I was raised with a strong hope in the resurrection of the body and an eternity on the new earth, so I can’t say that this book changed my view of the future, but it helped shape my thinking of how the future bleeds into the present.

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (Wheaton Literary Series) by Madeleine L’Engle – Around the time I read this book, I read a number of books on art and faith that encouraged me and influenced how I think about the interaction of art and faith. But this book healed me. This book was more personal to me. This book I reread. (Another one of my favorites in this area: The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts by a number of very smart theologians and artists.)

Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine) by Kevin Vanhoozer – This book is a beast. I have notes on scraps of paper in tiny handwriting from this book because for some reason, I didn’t have a full notebook while I was reading it. This book influenced how I think about God’s love, his self-communication, his covenant promises, and our interaction with all of that. I wish I owned this book so I could reread it, but it costs $127 because I guess the Cambridge Studies series only wants to be in seminary libraries. I don’t know.

Let the Nations Be Glad!: The Supremacy of God in Missions (Spire Books) by John Piper – Piper and I disagree on a number of theological areas, but I’ll say this: he’s passionate and committed to serving God. I read this book years and years ago, and it changed how I think about the Church’s mission and missions. (Also Global Missiology for the 21st Century: The Iguassu Dialogue (Globalization of Mission Series), which is a collection of pieces written by scholars from around the world.)

The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne – You cannot take this book lightly. It calls for radical living, and I’ve been thinking every since about how to do this.

A Community Called Atonement: Living Theology by Scot McKnight – This book complemented my study of Luke and Acts, and it shaped how I think through the metaphors for atonement and how this influences our church communities.

Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters by Philip Payne – I’m currently making my way through this book, and I decided to list it not because it changed how I view the role of women in the church but because it’s shaping how I see Paul’s letters to the church: earthy, gritty letters written to people Paul loves about real issues these Christians faced in their daily lives. I never really liked Paul before reading this book. I wondered how we could be friends on the new earth. Now I can’t wait to meet this man who loved despite hurt and rejection, who wanted nothing else but to serve God’s kingdom and who desired the same for those he loved.

So there you have it. The 10 non-fiction theological (mostly) books that help explain who I am.

If Books Could Talk

Books tell stories.


But I mean more than the stories on the pages. The books people own tell stories about who those people are. Once an acquaintance after browsing my books said, “Oh, we can be friends. You read Alexandra Fuller.” This is why–until Keegan pulled them off the shelves daily–I displayed the books important to my upbringing in the living room, Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Madeleine L’Engle. Observing these books shows you a piece of me. (Of course, my current favorites reside on shelves in my bedroom, close to me where I can see them before I go to bed and when I wake up. You’ll most likely never see those shelves.) Now on my living rooms shelves, you’ll find Thomas the Train and Sandra Boynton and Papa, Please Get the Moon For Me. I suppose that tells you something about me as well.

As much as I love my Kindle (and spend more money on ebooks than on hard- or softcovers), we lose this aspect of knowing one another (although I suppose apps like Goodreads make up for it). When I walk into someone’s home, I look first at their books (if they have any displayed; if they don’t, that tells me a whole different story about them, unless, of course, they have toddlers who eat books). I want to know what they read, which authors they love. Then I feel like I know them in some way.

Almost every year, my parents rent the same house in Ocean City, NJ, and every year I inspect the shelves. I want to know what books have disappeared, what books have been left by previous renters, what books I never noticed tucked away in dusty corners.

This house has a strange collection, as I suppose any house would when it collects sundry beachers. It’s mostly made up of books from the 70s and 80s, which I suppose speaks to the owners: Christian living books by J.I. Packer and Chuck Swindoll and Corrie ten Boom, cookbooks, books on mathematics or finance or American Red Cross First Aid. Then you have your typical beach reads, though they seem to be beach reads from a past decade: John Grisham and Mary Higgins Clark and Sue Grafton. And, of course, the salty, sea-worthy books like Men, Ships, and the Sea and The Old Man and the Sea (the very copy I read at this very house many moons ago). I won’t note how many of these books had library stamps and cards–books forgotten by owners until they returned home to fines.

But into this mix, I find books that make me want to know the people who read them: Skin Diving Made Easy (really, made easy?), A Social History of Furniture Design, Bulletin of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collections, Inc. I want to know the stories of these book readers, of the skin divers and the furniture designers and the time collectors. I imagine a ten-year-old and his grandfather perusing the book on watches and clocks, combing garage sales for time pieces we no longer rely on in our cell-phoned world. Or a thirty-something single mom donning snorkel and pushing deeper and deeper into the water for treasures only she’ll know. Or the couple who owns their own business carving intricate designs into their rocking chairs.

I found four issues of Glimmer Train from the 90s, and I think, could the owners have subscribed and read for a time? It seems so unlike them. Has a fellow short-story lover been here? Or is there a side to the owners I’ve never known before, a dimension they hide for only a certain few, like a secret society meeting of short story writers and readers who gather at the Ocean City used bookstore I found many years ago. I remember the smell of wet pages blown through the store by the fan in the corner, the feel of sand in the cracks of the books.

These are the stories I find in these books with their tattered covers, torn covers, pages stiff from the sea. I wonder what tales I’ll discover next time.

On Reading

I’ve always loved books.

I fell in love with books before I could read, when my parents would read story after story to me, and I’d memorize the stories, and my mom would tell her friends that I could read before I could because I not only knew the books word-for-word, but I knew when to turn the pages and where to look at which words. (Don’t worry–she always revealed her joke before they called the nightly news.)

Year after year, I handed my parents my Christmas list–a list of books. Then I’d spend Christmas day and the rest of the week finishing those books. At the annual school book fair, I’d dog-ear the catalog and make my selections, parceling out the little money I had to spend on lengthy books that would last longer.

I read books because I wanted to be like the people I read about (especially Anne of Green Gables, but that’s no secret). I wanted to live in their worlds. I wanted to bring something from their worlds into mine.

Sometime later, I noticed how all the smart people analyzed books, and I wanted to learn how to do that. I wanted to glean more and more from the book. I had learned how to analyze music, and it made me love and understand music deeper and wider. I had learned how to analyze Scripture and theology, and it made me love and understand God and his ways more. I wanted the same for books. I wanted to love books and short stories I hadn’t understood before. I wanted to see deeper into the books and stories I already loved. I wanted to know why I loved them, what made them so great.

At first, learning different ways that people tell stories and develop characters and unfold themes and paint images did just that. It opened up the wonders of a book and its construction and the genius of the writer. I began to learn how to discern between a fun read and something much deeper. But sometimes, it became something ugly.

It became a way for me to feel superior to people who only read those kinds of books. And it became a voice censoring the books I could read and enjoy.

There is something objective to art, what makes a book well-written, well-developed, and long-lasting, what makes the characters linger on our palates, the stories mingle with our memories, the themes sneak into our theologies and ideologies and all those other -ologies that guide how we choose jobs or clean our homes or love our neighbors. Analyzing a piece of art can help us understand its meaning and why it means something to us.

But here’s where I erred: I forgot to first enter into the story. Sometimes I forgot to enjoy reading. I looked first at what I was supposed to think about it, what the author said about the book, what the critics said about the book, what the smart readers said about the book. I forgot because I feared not looking smart.

We fall in love with reading because we enter into these stories, into the lives of these characters, and they mean something to us. The stories reflect our own. We realize we’re not alone. We understand something we didn’t understand before about ourselves, our world (micro and macro), or about the woman down the street.

When I enter into a story, I may (gasp) miss something that the author intended or the critics got, but I may also get something else entirely out of it. It may relate to me in a way that it never related to the author because we have different experiences, different backgrounds, different lives.

I learned to be okay with looking dumb when I read and talked about a book (or play, for that matter) because here’s the other thing: I can learn from a community of readers who also entered into the story and gleaned something entirely different than what I did. I learned to be okay with admitting that the most influential authors on my life and writing include, yes, Chimamanda Adichie and Richard Russo and Jennifer Egan and Anne Tyler and (now) Jonathan Safran Foer, but they also include Carolyn Keene (or the group of writers who make up Carolyn Keene) and L.M. Montgomery and (here’s the big reveal that may destroy my reputation [in my head, I have a grand reputation]) Janette Oke. I learned to be okay with admitting that some days I read a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, some days I read a whodunit, and some days I even read an Oprah-pick (don’t judge me).

I love books. The bookshelf in my bedroom is reserved for the books dearest to me (except for some that I purposely display in the living room because I think they’ll tell you something about who I am–books like Nancy Drew and Anne of Green Gables). I want to see them when I go to sleep and wake up. And this is why I read.

The Road Trips and the Book Crates

The unspoken rules of packing for the car trip: one suitcase max per person. Unlimited books allowed.

We packed the minivan with cooler and blue and red crates of books, removed the middle seats and spread out the sleeping bags (this was before all the crazy seat-belt and car-seat laws–anyone else feel nostalgic for those days?), cued the tapes (nobody knew his secret ambition), and settled in for 26 hours of reading.

Of course, after the 26-hour marathon, we had several weeks ahead of us–time spent at grandparents’ homes, time spent in Ocean City, time spent at family reunions where you might need to sneak away for just a couple of minutes–and one must be prepared. And when we ran out of books (which we often did), I’d scrounge my grandparents’ houses for old books like the Polly series from my mom’s childhood or the Grace Livingston Hill books my dad’s mom brought home for me from the bookstore where she worked.

My dad packed mostly theology books. The rest of us, fiction. We tried to coordinate as much as possible. We all wanted to try out this John Grisham guy. And yes, we all read Frank Peretti. Then there was Anne of Green Gables, which I think I took every year because you never know when you’ll absolutely need to reread them.

When I was old enough to drive (and therefore could not be reading), I made up stories about my fellow travelers. I made friends with other cars on the road and bade sad farewells to them when they exited before I did.

I loved those car trips. I loved how we all sang, “Sittin’ in the rain / water on your brain / got a hole in your boat” when someone had the foolishness to admit they had to pee. I loved finding a good rest stop for lunch (which we noted on our maps for next year; interesting fact: after Bill Clinton became president, Arkansas rest stops improved 135 percent).

But mostly, I loved how we immersed ourselves in books. My family breathed the written word. We hounded each other to finish a book so the next one in line could read it.

Even now, my mom and I have a long-standing disagreement about who really owns those Nancy Drew books. (I claim my mom gave them to me. She claims she lent them. Potato, potato.)

I loved those crates of books, the anticipation of working through the crates one story at a time, of a summer vacation filled with murder and vindication, romance, old-fashioned dress. To be honest, I don’t remember most of what I read in high school. I remember Dandelion Wine and Fahrenheit 451 and Sense and Sensibility but not much else. (I remember more about what I read in elementary school, oddly enough, but maybe this is because I really fell in love with reading–and writing–in elementary school.) But I remember vacations of words and stories, and I remember sharing these stories.

Maybe this is why I’m excited about getting a minivan, though my husband tells me that since I’m a rebel without a cause (his words; I think I have plenty of causes; I also think I’m a rule-follower unless the rule is stupid), I shouldn’t want to be a minivan-driving mom. But to me, minivans mean road trips and music and crates of books.

Now I own a Kindle. Don’t get me wrong–I love my Kindle. I love having any number of books at my beck and call at any given moment. I’m not one who feels the need to lament the growth of the ebook any more than I lament the passing of scrolls. (Also, I’ve bought more books since owning a Kindle, so writers and publishers should be happy.) But I will miss the crates of books.

Perhaps I’ll still have them when we take car trips with a minivan full of kids. Or perhaps we’ll listen to audio books together, as my husband and I already do (although he only does nonfiction, the crazy kook). But we’re in the market for a used minivan without a DVD player, and I want to pass on this love of word and story that my parents gave me.

Thank you, Mom and Dad.

Review–The Gospel of Matthew: God With Us by Matt Woodley

IVP has a new commentary series, Resonate Series, edited by Paul Metzger, a theologian for whom I have much respect. The series seeks to bridge the ancient teachings of the Bible with today’s culture. In this book on Matthew, author Matt Woodley picks up the theme of God with us to challenge us to the adventure to which Jesus calls us, one that asks for wholehearted commitment but is “especially designed for all the ‘little faiths’ who never have to walk alone” (pp. 21-22). Woodley presents the challenge and encouragement found in Matthew.

I’m honored to be part of a blog review on this book and have been asked to take a particular look at Woodley’s essays on Matthew 18. (You can find out more about the book on its Facebook page, as well as links to reviews on other chapters.)

Matthew 18 is a difficult chapter–both to understand (with sections about binding and releasing on earth and heaven) and to follow (ach! that darned command to forgive and forgive and forgive!).

This commentary simplifies the passage so that as Christians, we can understand how Jesus wants us to follow him. Matt Woodley presents a more lay-level commentary. He doesn’t concern himself with verse-by-verse interpretation but with viewing larger passages in a culturally sensitive light–sensitive to the culture in which it was written and the culture in which we must now live it out. To facilitate this, the author writes in essays about sections of Matthew, including his interpretation, large-scale ideas for applications, and illustrations from his own life.

Or, to put it another way, this commentary reads less like a traditional commentary and more like collected preachings–or blog posts–on the book of Matthew. Those looking for a more in-depth commentary that surveys and works through the different theologies of difficult passages (such as that binding and releasing passage in 18:18-20) may be disappointed, but those looking for an aide to understand how to practically take these teachings of Jesus and apply it in our interactions with others will find a good resource in The Gospel of Matthew: God With Us.

The essays for chapter 18, “A Person’s a Person, No Matter How Small” (17:24-18:20) and “The Unnatural Act of Forgiveness” (18:21-35), both point out Jesus’s concern with how we treat others according to God’s compassion: the socially forgotten or outcast and those who have hurt us. In both cases, Woodley shows us how dealing with people God’s way differs from dealing with people according to the world’s way. I would have liked to have seen more connection and crossover between the teaching on confronting sin and on forgiveness (perhaps breaking the essays in 17:24-18:14 and 18:15-35), which gives balance for these two hard truths and more context for the passage on binding and loosing (which Woodley doesn’t deal with at all), but I also appreciate how Woodley connected them, using the value of respecting others and understanding that we’re all little people in God’s sight to bring together how we approach others. Of course, each teaching in this chapter flows into the next–chasing the lost sheep, restoring a lost brother through confronting his sin, forgiving a brother–that any type of break is difficult to do (and yet needed for practicality’s sake).

In the first essay, Woodley makes a comment about the childlike attitude Jesus calls us to have: “We enter through that door by receiving Christ, but we must reenter the same door every day for the rest of our life.” In context, I believe the author doesn’t mean that we must be re-saved every day but that we must persevere with a humble, childlike attitude so that we respond properly to God and to others around us. That being said, I would have liked to have seen him more careful with his wording to prevent misunderstandings. (I remember as a child feeling like I had to be saved again every day after that day’s disobedience until my dad explained to me Christ’s faithfulness and the assurance I had, so I’m sensitive to this issue.)

In the second essay, I came across a favorite line: “Jesus didn’t ignore ordinary human feelings; this Gospel begins and ends with a God who enters our godforsaken places.” Reminders like these make this a readable, challenging commentary that gets us on our feet for God’s kingdom.

I highly recommend this commentary for personal study, to use as a small group book study, or as a resource for lay-level teachers. The Gospel of Matthew gets to the heart of Jesus’ teachings and makes them hard to ignore.

I received a free copy of the book from IVP with the agreement that I’d review it on my blog. This in no way committed me to a positive review.
Renew Now