Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith

Sundays in AmericaSuzanne Strempek Shea, author of Sundays in America, writes that “four years after floating away from organized religion, I got the idea that I might want to go on a pilgrimage of sorts, tour a few other houses of worship, finally find out just what goes on in those churches.” So every Sunday for one church year, Easter to Easter, Shea visited a different church that identified itself as Christian. She traveled across the country, worshipping in mega-churches and small groups gathering in borrowed spaces, visited major mainline congregations and those of obscure denominations. She spent Sunday mornings in a “cowboy church” in Colorado, in Christian Science’s Boston “mother church,” in Georgia’s Maranatha Baptist Church (where Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school), in Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, and Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church. She worshipped with America’s last Shaker community (in Maine!), a Mennonite congregation on a Hopi reservation, members of Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco, and many, many more, winding up her road trip with an unplanned visit to the nondenominational chapel at Denver International Airport.

She describes the worship space of each venue, the sort of welcome she received there, the music and message she heard, and the impression she was left with. Sometimes she provides some history about a denomination or congregation. Shea is open about being more comfortable in churches that preach love rather than fear, acceptance rather than judgment.  But driven by curiosity, reverence, and an eagerness to be won over, she makes a fine guide on this unique journey



Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. DallowayVirginia Woolf’s brief, exquisite masterpiece reveals the fierce flame often burning within ordinary people living what appear to be very ordinary lives.

Set in London on a single day in the early 1920s and spilling over with beautiful, precise, often startling detail, the novel gives us a stream-of-consciousness perspective (then a revolutionary narrative technique) of the central character, Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class, middle-aged wife and mother, who attends to the myriad details for a party she is hosting that evening. Woolf also gives us the thoughts and feelings of other characters, especially Septimus Smith, a decorated soldier irreparably broken by the war; and feckless, repressed Peter Walsh, rejected as a suitor by Clarissa when they were young, and recently returned from service in India.

I love Mrs. Dalloway because, with astonishing skill, Woolf gives me compelling glimpses into the lives of others, suggesting that perhaps everyone merits my close attention and compassion.



Kate Braestrup on Motherhood, Hope & Service

kate-braestrup-anchor-and-flaresKate Braestrup’s latest book, Anchor & Flares: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hope & ServiceAnchor & Flares: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hope & Service explores evil, death, and violence; wonder, prayer, and generosity; and love, love, love. Braestrup shares the mixture of fear and pride she felt when her older son enlisted in the Marines. She recounts the tragedy and loss she has witnessed as chaplain to the Maine State Game Wardens. And turning her gaze far from the here and now, she describes “the Danish Miracle,” a nation’s brave action in the face of the Nazi horror.

In a voice both warm and self-deprecating, sometimes droll, sometimes dead serious, Kate Braestrup once again shares with us her wisdom on the quotidian pitfalls and blessings of being human.


So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

so long see you tomorrowI’ve been treating myself to visits with old friends this summer, re-reading some of my favorite books. I started with So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. Maxwell was the fiction editor at The New Yorker for 40 years, gently refining stories by John Cheever, John Updike, and many, many others. But Maxwell was himself a fine writer, and So Long, See You Tomorrow is the first of his books I read.

At the heart of the novel is the story of two boys, the unnamed narrator and his classmate Cletus. Cletus’s life is shattered by a fatal act of violence, and the narrator’s is scarred by his response to Cletus. With precise detail and a measured cadence, Maxwell takes us through the town’s streets and into families’ kitchens and barns. He lovingly creates characters–complex, flawed, wise and foolish, generous and short-sighted, kindhearted and grasping.   The book jacket describes this book as “widely considered [Maxwell’s] finest achievement, an Old Testament tragedy played out on the Illinois prairie, told as reminiscence in a voice that is quiet, plain, compassionate, and wise.”  It is a novel of profound stillness and immense power.



Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

our soulsOne day widow Addie Moore shows up at the door of her neighbor, widower Louis Waters, and asks if he will sleep with her. As Addie puts it, “I’m not talking about sex. I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. I think I could sleep again if there were someone else in bed with me. Someone nice. The closeness of that. Talking in the night, in the dark.”

In his brief tale of Addie and Louis, Kent Haruf, a wise and tender craftsman, gives us so much more than the modern cliche of two oldsters finding their inner teenagers; he gives us deeply human feelings, simply stated. He shines a light on two souls seeking what they most need.


For the Word Nerd

Between-You-and-MeIf you’re a word nerd like me, fascinated by grammar and tickled by punctuation, you’ll want to read Mary Norris’s amusing, quirky Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Part memoir, part essay collection, it is by turns instructive and chatty.

Norris, a long-time copy-editor at The New Yorker, tackles English’s baffling spelling, the bugaboo of gendered pronouns (everybody wants her way? his way? their way?), the challenge of case (you and me? you and I? who or whom?), and the history, uses, and abuses of the hyphen, dash, semicolon, colon, and apostrophe. As a bonus, she has an entire chapter on her favorite pencil (really!), and she sprinkles everything with gossip about The New Yorker’s staff and writers.

She becomes quite technical when she marches into the swamp of transitive and intransitive verbs and restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. (Readers who don’t make the errors Norris wants to prevent won’t need her explanations; those who do make these errors will get lost in the jargon.) And some readers will feel that Norris’s more private revelations simply don’t belong in a book like this. Others may appreciate the more personal glimpse of the lady wielding that special pencil.




A God in Ruins

god in ruinsFans of Atkinson’s mind-blowing Life After Life have been waiting for this latest novel, A God in Ruins, which serves as something of a companion-piece—not a sequel—to the earlier book. While Life After Life recounted the story of Ursula Todd, A God in Ruins examines the life of her brother Teddy.

Edward Todd, known by all as Teddy, was born in 1914 to a good British family. A nice boy who became a nice man, he married the girl next door and served with some distinction as a bomber commander in World War II. He loved nature and his dog, his wife, their daughter, and their daughter’s two children. He lived a long life. That, from the outside, is the sum of his life, what most people would deem an ordinary life.

But nothing is ordinary in Kate Atkinson’s hands. The amount of detail the author gives us about Teddy’s life—especially his post-war years, all shaped by the war—brings us not just into Teddy’s mind but into his heart, and we are reminded that perhaps there is no such thing as an ordinary life.

Atkinson is a master storyteller with a remarkable command of pacing and tone. Despite the seriousness at the heart of the novel, there are elements of playfulness throughout. At one point, for example, we learn of Teddy’s daughter Viola that “She felt a sudden spark of sympathy for him and stamped on it.” And when Teddy’s granddaughter Bertie attends a conference, she reflects on the person on stage: “The man who was speaking had a degree in jargon and a doctorate in nonsense. His words were floating in the air, language devoid of meaning, sucking out the oxygen, making Bertie feel mildly hypoxic.”

A God in Ruins contains no “language devoid of meaning.”



Click here for my review of:  Life After Life.


Dead Wake

book-lg-dead-wakeEric Larson has delivered another page-turner in Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Employing his proven strategy for writing gripping history, Larson sets two primary stories in motion and then gives readers an detailed play-by-play until the stories intersect.

The Lusitania was sunk 100 years ago, in the early days of WWI. Larson unspools the stories of that magnificent English liner, with Captain William Turner at the helm, and the submarine that torpedoed her, captained by Kptlt. Walther Schwieger. Both Turner and Schwieger were excellent seamen, respected by their crews and superiors. Turner, who called himself “an old-fashioned sailorman,” was a “stickler for detail and discipline” who had served the Cunard line for decades. The much younger Schwieger was “considered one of the German navy’s most knowledgeable commanders, so much so that he was consulted on submarine matters by his superiors, and his boat was used to try out new submarine tactics.”

Both captains found themselves cut off from their superiors—Turner, by the Admiralty’s deliberate decision to withhold information about German submarine activity, and Schwieger, by lack of radio contact. As the vessels converged, those in the Admiralty watched in silence: “It was like knowing that a particular killer was loose on the streets of London, armed with a particular weapon, and certain to strike in a particular neighborhood within the next few days, the only unknown being exactly when.”

There was considerable concern at the time about whether the U.S. could be drawn into the war. Larson follows the personal life of then-President Wilson, a grieving widower who was blossoming into a happy suitor. Would he be able to focus on the war in Europe?

Larson also introduces us to a number of passengers on the Lusitania—children and adults, couples and individuals, entire families even; American and British; first, second, and third class. Although we know the fate of the liner, we grow increasingly worried about the individuals on board. What became of the rare-book collector, the spiritualist, the wealthy industrialist, the man bringing his sweetheart a diamond ring and a proposal of marriage?

As he always does, Larson amasses an enormous trove of facts: details about the size and construction, speed and propulsion of both ships, the meals and activities provided on the liner, the weather—a delight for history geeks. (Sometimes, however, he just can’t bring himself to discard an interesting but irrelevant or distracting factoid!) And he looks briefly at a question debated for a century by historians: were weapons hidden in the liner’s hold?

If you enjoy history that reads like a thriller, brimming with detail and interesting characters, you can’t go wrong with Dead Wake.




The Meaning of the Miracles

More than his God cardWhen we hear about the miracles Jesus performed— “feeding the multitude,” changing water into wine during the marriage feast at Cana, raising his friend Lazarus from the dead, and others—we are often told that the point of these events is to prove Jesus’ divinity. But in his new book, More than His God Card, Brian Onken contends that if that’s all we see—if we only see Jesus “pulling out his God card”—we miss a lot.

Scripture scholar, ordained minister, and experienced preacher, Onken revisits each story, inviting us to imagine ourselves into the event, to see and hear, even smell and touch, what happened and to grasp what the miracles meant to the people around Jesus in those moments.  More than His God Card enables those familiar with the Gospels to read these stories with fresh eyes and may also help newcomers wondering about who Jesus was and who He might be for them.