Book Reviews

Glass Houses by Louise Penny (Chief Inspector Gamache #13)

Glass Houses by Louise Penny (Chief Inspector Gamache #13)Summary: Gamache, now head of the Sûreté du Québec gambles.

The Chief Inspector Gamache series has been consistently the best mystery series I have read. It is rare series, 13 books in, that still keeps me engaged. And I think the last two books, while a bit unbelievable as mysteries, are probably the best two books of the series.

Armond Gamache has been a career homicide detective. The past several books he has been in an out of the Sûreté. Two books ago he took down the corrupt head of the Sûreté. The last book he was the head of the training academy where he again rooted out corruption. Now he is the head of the whole Sûreté and he turns his attention to the drug trade.

What I have loved about the series is the characters. I am not particularly interesting in the actual mysteries except as a means to see the characters. Penny falls into the common mystery series trap of thinking that she needs to make each successive crime bigger to keep the attention of the reader. (I think this is a false trap. Crimes do not need to be bigger, but the growth of the characters needs to be bigger.)

While I am not particularly interested massive governmental corruption or international terrorism plots or organized crime, I am interested in how those challenges impact Gamache. One of his faults is keeping the responsibility and information too close to his vest. This is a book where he is forced to plan with others a little bit. But because of previous corruption he keeps that circle very small.

Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L’Engle (Crosswick Journal #4)

Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L'Engle (Crosswick Journal #4)Summary: The last of the series of memoirs, about her husband and their marriage.

Memoirs are about recounting and processing different of life. I appreciate that L’Engle has four different memoirs that are themed. I do not know of any other author that has done this. The first is about being a writer, mother, teacher and creative person. The second is about her own mother and the grief she feels at her decline. The third is about her faith using the liturgical year and a method of organizing.

And Two-Part Invention is about her marriage to Hugh. All of these books are really about Madeleine of course. But we are created by our interactions and integration with others. Marriage impacts us because it is a relationship of choice that at its best is for a lifetime.

There is a lot of background on Madeleine before her marriage. And the years between meeting Hugh and the current story she is telling. The story main story is about Hugh’s dying. I suppose that is a spoiler, but he died over 30 years ago. It is a remembrance and dealing with grief. Marriage, when not interrupted through divorce, is ultimately interrupted by death. That is the normal way of life.

Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism by David Gushee

Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism by David GusheeSummary: A brief memoir about how Gushee’s attempt to follow his calling moved him out of Evangelicalism.

David Gushee is one of those authors that I know about but until I read his book Changing Our Mind, I do not think I had read more than a couple articles by him (mostly at Christianity Today.)

The transcript of a speech at the end of the 2nd edition of Changing Our Mind (the 3rd edition is now out) is what made me what to pick up this book. Gushee’s dissertation was about German Christian response to the Holocaust. Gushee in his speech drew parallels to how ethical thinking was impacted by the understanding of actual people harmed.

Last week I saw that this memoir was coming out. I picked up a review copy and moved it to the top of my reading list. I have been craving memoirs of my elders lately. After finishing the four volumes of Madeleine L’Engle’s memoirs I was intending to pick up Stanley Hauerwas’ memoir Hannah’s Child. Gushee’s memoir jumped in line.

Seeing how people work out their faith over time, in good and bad times, is very encouraging. And watching how people of deep faith come to different conclusions in their theological and ethical positions while retaining a robust devotional and theological life also is a good reminder of the greatness of God, and of our own limited perspectives.

David Gushee grew up a nominal Catholic. As a teen, Gushee came to faith through a Southern Baptist church in Northern Virginia. Quickly feeling the call to ministry, he went to undergrad at William and Mary and then seminary at Southern Seminary. Gushee had not been prepared for the internal politics of the SBC that was in the throes of a significant theological battle.

He moved from Southern to Union Seminary in New York City, from a school that was fighting about how conservative to be, to one that was the center of Liberation Theology. For three years on campus and then three years off campus, he started to gain an understanding what it means to be too conservative for the liberals and too liberal for the conservatives.

White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White by Daniel Hill

White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White by Daniel HillSummary: The nature of what it means to be White in American, especially as a Christian, is not looked at nearly enough.

When I was thinking about graduate school I made a conscious decision that I wanted to be challenged in my faith and culture and that I did not want to go to an Evangelical seminary. That was helped by the fact that there were very few options for the type of program that I was looking for. The University of Chicago was one of about six schools in the country that had a  program for a dual masters with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Social Work (officially it is a Masters in Social Service Administration, but it is an MSW equivalent).

That decision was made in large part because I had an undergrad degree from Wheaton College. I grew up in a solidly Evangelical wing of the Baptist world and I was comfortable in my theology. I didn’t need more Evangelical theology and experience, I needed to experience the church beyond the Evangelical world.

Going to University of Chicago was a very good decision. I know I could get more out of my education if I were more mature with more life experience. But at the time, being exposed to other sincere Christians that were Catholic, mainline, and even one classmate that was a non-theistic Unitarian expanded my view of the church.

I still clearly remember a class while I was in the School of Social Work on race and ethnicity. The professor talked about how we often do not understand our culture until we are separated from it. If you are from the South and move to the Northeast, you will understand parts of what it means to be Southern that you did not understand before. This similar to getting married. What you assumed was true of every family, becomes clear that it was unique about your family.

I did not at the time think of the lesson primarily through the lens of Whiteness, but through the lens of my Evangelical-ness. While at Wheaton I was not completely comfortable describing myself as Evangelical because of some of the nuances of what that meant in that location. But at University of Chicago I claimed Evangelical much more clearly because it was a unique category. I wanted to be Evangelical there because of the many misunderstandings of what Evangelical meant to my non-Evangelical classmates. All groups have nuance and often those outside the group only see the stereotype, not the nuance.

White Away: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White is a very helpful look at the category of whiteness as a Christian. Part of the reality of the United States is that most White people are mostly around White people. We may have one friend that is a person of color. But most of us do not have a wide network of non-white friends and business associates. Most White people live in communities that are predominately White and go to churches that are predominately White and work at jobs with predominately White co-workers.

Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership is Overlooked in White Churches and Institutions

Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership is Overlooked in White Churches and InstitutionsSummary: Minorities consistently talk of the feelings of alienation within White church culture. We should listen.

Part of what should be convicting is the consistent voice of love of the church by minority believers AND the stories of alienation or outright racism from White believers as individuals or as institutions. The fact that they are often paired together should mean that as White Christians, we need to listen to what it is that alienates minorities, especially those that are potential leaders.

Anthony Bradley is a professor and consistent critic of racism within the Reformed church. He has earned his place at the table, but often White believers want to reduce him to ‘angry Black man’. When you read what he has put up with in order to serve the church (and I have not read any of his longer books that he has written only shorter social media posts and blog posts), it is a wonder that any minority believers stay within the White church.

Aliens in the Promised Land, a book of essays introduced by Bradley, was published in 2013 in the midst of one of his bouts of active persecution. As with any set of essays, there are some essays that grab you more than others. But other than the essay by Carl Ellis, which was fine, but about urban minority youth discipleship and felt a bit out of place, I thought they all added to the book well.

There really are a number of different issues and Aliens in the Promised Land did well to address them. First, this is not just a Black and White issue. Amos Yong’s essay as an Asian in a ‘post-racist’ evangelicalism and several essays from a Hispanic and Latino authors illustrated to me that minorities are much more aware of the needs of different streams of minorities than many Whites who tend to reduce racial issues to Black and White.

Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric Foner

Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric FonerSummary: There is few parts of American history that are less understood but have more importance to modern political problems.

Over the past year I have realized how large my historical blind spots have been from the end of the Civil War until roughly the Civil Rights era. That 100 year era was almost completely absent from my education and I just didn’t realize how much that absence mattered until I kept running up against that missing historical era when reading about modern racial issues.

When I asked around multiple people suggested that I start with Eric Foner. He has several books that are roughly around this era including a shorter edition of this book that is on sale right now. There are two edition of this book and I picked the older edition because it was the one that was available on Audible as an audiobook. (The audiobook really is poorly done, lots of editing problems, lots of mispronounced words, lots of sound issues.)

Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution was originally published in 1988, nearly 30 years ago with the conscious purpose of countering the myths of reconstruction that had grown up as part of the Lost Cause movement and the later Jim Crow and segregation eras. Much of the early history of Reconstruction was written in the 1920-50s from the perspective of Southern historians. Foner was the first major historian of the late 20th century to counter that myth (and I am using myth in the academic method as a founding story, not just as a false narrative.) Foner does note that WEB DuBois book Black Reconstruction in America, had many similar themes, but was largely ignored by academic historians who had adopted the common narrative for the failure of Reconstruction.

The short version of the book is that the failure of Reconstruction was a mix of economic problems, government corruption (this was present in both parties, but the Republicans as the majority party, and the party of former slave office holders in the South was blamed more strongly) and fatigue of the problems of Reconstruction, not freed Black office holders, carpet baggers and scalawags.

There were several major periods of Reconstruction. Foner starts with 1963, when the Union Army occupied large areas of the south and under the Emancipation Proclamation, operated an Army run Reconstruction until the end of the war. During this period and the next period, Foner suggests that there was far more self directed movement among newly freed slaves to lift themselves up and build institutions and community than is generally assumed.

Reviewed Books on Sale

Since I have shifted to an almost entirely review site from a free/sale books and review site, I have not posted often about sale books and barely all about free books. I still do not want to post about free books because other sites do that well. But I am going to keep a running post about the current books that are on sale that have been reviewed. I will keep a link to it on the top right of the blog but not keep it in the main feed once it drops off the main page ( keeps the 10 most recent posts on the main page.)

Please post in the comments if you notice a book that is no longer on sale that I have not removed from the list. The list is roughly in order of the date of sale with the most recent books at the top. Links are to the reviews, which have links to the sale. Almost all of the sales are kindle books. Non-kindle books are marked at audiobook or print.

Note: These are the reviews of books that have been reviewed by Not all of the reviews are positive reviews. Because it is on sale does not mean that I recommend you buy it. I am intentionally linking to reviews of books that I do not recommend that are on sale as well as the ones I recommend.

Note 2: Links are to the reviews, which have links to the sales at the bottom. Reviewed Books on Sale

When The Soul Listens: Finding Rest and Direction in Contemplative Prayer by Jan Johnson

When The Soul Listens: Finding Rest and Direction in Contemplative Prayer by Jan JohnsonSummary: Contemplative prayer is about hearing from God and resting in his care.

Part of my exploration of Spiritual Direction is looking into specific academic programs. Jan Johnson is one of the faculty at the program I am leaning toward. I picked up When the Soul Listens because it was newly released on audiobook by and on sale for $4.99.

When The Soul Listens: Finding Rest and Direction in Contemplative Prayer was originally released in 1999 and was recently reissued. I initially felt some push back against Johnson at the beginning of the book because of emphasis against extemporaneous prayer and against written and fixed prayer. (Part of the renewal of my personal prayer life over the past decade has been finding fixed prayer and historic prayers especially using the Book of Common Prayer.) Part of her emphasis on extemporaneous prayer is based in the focus of the book on Contemplative Prayer, which tends to not be focused on fixed prayer. But also her background in Evangelicalism.

But as the book progressed, I was less bothered by the bias because of the clear wisdom about prayer in general. This is a book that I want to get in print eventually because there are so many good one line thoughts about prayer. Because I listened to the book on audio I didn’t write many of them down.

The Practice of Spiritual Direction by William Barry and William Connolly

The Practice of Spiritual Direction by William Barry and William ConnollySummary: Good overview of the how and why of Spiritual direction.

I am a bit unsure how to proceed with my blogging about books about spiritual direction. I have been going to a Spiritual Director for the past four years and I have mentioned it a couple times in other book reviews.

Over the past couple months I have been considering the possibility of formal training to become a spiritual director. I have not made a decision one way or another. But I have committed to reading more about spiritual direction (because that is how I process), praying about it, and seeking out advice from people around me that I trust.

As part of the reading more about Spiritual Direction I am going to be reading a number of books about spiritual direction over the next 6-8 months until it is time for me to actually apply to a program. I am not sure if I am going to blog through these books or not.

The Practice of Spiritual Direction is a classic book on spiritual direction originally written in 1982. The authors are both Catholic, but it is very ecumenical in tone (at least the 2009 edition that I read.) The first couple chapters are rough descriptions of what spiritual direct is and is not. There are some definitions that are stricter and some that are looser, but roughly the spiritual direction here is understood as, ‘helping a person directly with his or her relationship with God.’

Move Toward the Mess: The Ultimate Fix for a Boring Christian Life by John Hambrick

Move Toward the Mess: The Ultimate Fix for a Boring Christian Life by John HambrickSummary: Consumer Christianity is boring.

John Hambrick is one of the pastors at my church. I have heard some of this book in stories from sermons that either John preached or were taught or referenced by other pastors.

I picked up Move Toward the Mess when it first came out but never got around to reading it. A couple weeks ago I was scheduled to meet with John and figured I should find out about him a bit before I met with him.

The broad story here is that our Christianity has become boring and staid because we have misunderstood what Christianity is. Christianity is not for us as individuals, especially not to give us something safe.

Christianity is much more corporate than what we tend to understand. We are Christians as a body and not purely as individuals. As such, we cannot really be a Christian apart from a community.

Move Toward the Mess is exactly the message of the book. Christians, if we want to be about the work of the church are supposed to be moving toward the messy and difficult parts of life. If we are focused on our safety as a priority then we will be missing out on the real work of the church and the real areas of growth for us as individuals.