Book Reviews

A Live Coal in the Sea by Madeleine L’Engle

A Live Coal in the Sea: A NovelSummary: Camilla, now in her 60s, recounts her story to a questioning granddaughter.

A Live Coal in the Sea is a sequel to Camilla, published 45 years later. That distance in time between the two books is nearly the distance in time within the books.

Camilla was about a 15 year old growing up in New York City and coming to be aware of the tragedies of life outside of herself. A Live Coal in the Sea is about Camilla sometime in her mid to late 60s. The story catches up on the intervening years through flashback and story. Camilla’s granddaughter, Raffi, is going to college at the small school where Camilla is an astronomy professor.

After some vague and confusing disclosures by her father, Raffi comes to her Grandmother to get the whole story. This begins a long recounting of both special tragedy and the normal process of people coming together as a family, working through issues in a marriage and with children, the aging and dying of people around them and the coming to terms with the meaning of life.

At root, this is a family drama. The sins of one generation impact later generations. And while some members of a family adapt, heal and move on, others cannot and the generational cycles continue.

For me this is a mid-level L’Engle book. It doesn’t rise to the level of her Crosswick Journal insights into humanity. It isn’t as compelling as A Swiftly Tilting Planet or A Ring of Endless Night. But it also isn’t as disturbing as A House Like a Lotus or as boring as Meet The Austins.

This is not a young adult book like Camilla. It is intended as an adult book and it has adult themes. Infidelity, sexual and physical abuse of children, homosexuality, death and loss, and emotional abandonment are all present. It isn’t a particularly happy book, but it also isn’t a book that feels like it was trumped up to be overly depressing. While there is unusual tragedy in the book, the framing of the tragedy is focused on how all of our lives can be, and are, tragic in some ways. But God meets us in that tragedy because God loves us.

L’Engle isn’t writing ‘Christian Fiction’. She is writing fiction that is informed by her Christianity. Most Christian publishers would not touch this. But while I don’t think it is among her greatest book, it is a solid book.

(spoiler discussion below)

Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace

I am reposting this 2012 review because the Kindle Edition  is on sale for $0.99. The lowest price it has ever been.
Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace

Summary: We should give not out of obligation, but out of appreciation for what God has given to us.  Forgiveness is a particular type of giving but is it even more important that we offer forgiveness to one other because we are in need of forgiveness and because God has forgiven us.

This is a hard book to review. It is only six real chapters (plus a forward, an interlude, an epilogue and a conclusion.) But in the 225 pages of content, I highlighted 43 passages (many of them are multi-paragraph highlights). I cannot think of any other book I have ever highlighted so much.

There is so much rich theology about who God is, how God works in us, how God wants us to work in the lives of others. And this is not simple ‘five steps to loving God and your neighbor’ self help writing.  This is rough going. I read this over a month and still feel like I read it too quickly.

The first (long) chapter dealt with who God is. This is central to Volf’s understanding of how we can understand both giving and forgiving. Volf says most people see God as either a negotiator or Santa Claus. In other words, they either see God as someone you can strike a deal with in order to get what you want, or they see him as someone who just gives stuff willy-nilly. Later Volf contrasts our perception of the giving God with our misperceptions of how we understand God’s forgiveness.  People tend to see God as either an implacable judge, or as a doting grandparent.

This is a good summary statement for the book:

“You can sum up where we’ve landed in four simple sentences. The world is sinful. That’s why God doesn’t affirm it indiscriminately [like santa claus or a doting grandparent]. God loves the world. That’s why God doesn’t punish it in justice [like a negotiator or implacable judge]. What does God do with this double bind? God forgives.”

But there is so much more. In some ways I wish this were two shorter books. Because while the nature of giving and forgiving are linked in Volf’s understanding, they could be separated and it would be easier to recommend. Because even though 250 pages is not that long, it is heavy content. (Not hard to read, because Volf really is writing fairly simply; but it is hard to process.)

It is especially difficult to work through the issues of forgiveness. Because Volf is not primarily thinking about needing forgiveness for small things, but the big things. During the interlude, Volf tells of his brother that was tragically killed when he was 5 because the aging nanny was not watching him, and then the soldier that was playing with him allowed a tragic (but preventable) accident to occur.  Volf’s parents from the beginning were intent on forgiveness. This in spite of the fact that Volf’s father had been tortured by the soldiers only a few years earlier (Volf grew up in communist Czechoslovakia.)

The forgiveness was so complete that Volf himself did not know that the nanny had been at all at fault until he was an adult. Volf’s father traveled for days to comfort the soldier and ensure that he would not be punished.

Volf is talking about the need for deep and real forgiveness for big things like war crimes, rape and murder because we also need forgiveness for the little things like lying and gossip. There were multiple examples of hard forgiveness because Volf’s theology of forgiveness was catalyzed during the war crimes and aftermath of the Bosnian and Croatian wars.

He is also clear that forgiveness is not pretending that something did not happen. The first step in forgiveness is bringing to full acknowledgement the actual sin committed. I stumbled across this long New York Times Article on how a family in Florida used this style of restorative justice in a case where their daughter’s boyfriend killed her. It is exactly the type of deep and difficult forgiveness that Volf is talking about because it is the way that the power of Christ can be shown.

Volf is very clear that forgiveness can only occur with the power of Christ and that it is really not us that is doing the forgiveness, but that God is inviting us to participate with him in giving and forgiving because it is a way that we can be changed and that giving, and especially forgiveness, demonstrates the love of Christ to others.

This is not an easy book to read.  It is one of the most important books I have read an a while. A lot of Christian books read more like self-help books. This is not a self-help book, this is a book that demonstrates the radical work of Christ and the radical nature of what it means to be a Christian.

I recommend a lot of books, but this is one that I would put at near the top of your reading list.

Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition 

As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Eugene Peterson

As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Eugene PetersonSummary: A collection of 49 sermons that illustrate how Peterson thinks we should be formed by God.

Scripture is always the central focus on Eugene Peterson’s writing. Practice Resurrection may be about the church and spiritual development, but it is about how the book of Ephesians talks about the church and spiritual development. Run with the Horses may be about excellence, but it is framed by looking at excellence through Jeremiah the prophet. The Contemplative Pastor may be about spiritual direction and the role of the pastor, but it is largely through the lens of the beatitudes and other scripture that he looks at the pastor’s role.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire is Peterson’s book on preaching. It isn’t that lay people won’t get something out of this, I certainly do not actively preach, but I think it was written for pastors. Non-pastors probably will read this more as a devotional book. But pastors should read this as a master class in how our preaching is to be about scripture first and most of all and how scripture points to God.

The seven sections, each with seven sermons, are all looking at how a particular biblical author communicates God to us through scripture. The sections are labeled, ‘Preaching in the company of Moses, or David, or Isaiah, or Solomon, or Peter, or Paul, or John of Patmos. If you have read some of his other books you can seem a few of the drafts of ideas that were worked out in his books that started in his sermons. And based on the illustrations and content of the sermons, these stretched widely throughout his preaching career, from early days with young children to the 50th anniversary of the church that he started.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré

I am reposting this 2013 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $1.99.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: A George Smiley NovelSummary: A classic double (or is it triple) cross spy story. Originally written in 1963 this is a real spy classic.

Ever since the movie, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy came out I have wanted to read John le Carré.  But I have not known where to start.  Tinker, Tailor is in the George Smiley series of 8 books but the start of its own trilogy.

And many of the early books are not available in kindle or audiobook format that I prefer. So I picked up The Spy Who Came In From the Cold because it is the earliest of the series on audiobook, it is before Tinker Tailor and many people think it is le Carré’s best book.

I like spy books.  There is something that both meets my needs for action and fast moving plot, and also some cerebral content that is more than many action books.

le Carré is known for writing cerebral spy novels.  So while he has intrigued me, I have been a bit intimidated by the books.  Most people that don’t like them say they are too slow or to cerebral.  When I finally started this I listened to it straight through in just over a day.  (It is only 7 hours.)

Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Rowen

After having read 10 books of this series in the last four years I recommend it. A couple were not up to the standards of the rest of the series, but it is mostly a very good cozy mystery series. This first book is currently on sale for $1.99. The 11th book in the series comes out in August. Below is my review from 2013, very lightly edited.
Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

Summary: Fun mystery set in the early 1930s with a down on her luck 34th from the throne Royal.

I have to admit, that being a new parent and trying to keep up with work and enjoying my new daughter and trying to get enough sleep, I have just not been interested in reading anything heavy.  I have already finished more than my goal of books for the year (which is a new record number of books), so I don’t feel pressed to read to review.

Consequently I have been reading fun books.  And this is a great example of a fun book.  Georgie is the younger sister of a Duke.  She is 34th in line for the throne in 1932.  But that does not mean things are going well for her.  She is 21, her brother has stopped giving her a living allowance.  Her father has died after losing all of the family money in American investments, her mother left her father when she was a young child and has been sleeping her way through all of the rich and famous of Europe since then.

Georgie has had enough of her current life stuck in a cold drafty castle in Scotland with her very sweet, but fairly hapless brother and her distant and condescending sister in law.  So she heads to London to make her way on her own.  But things are not that easy.  She does not really have any job skills.  And she can’t take just any job, because there is society to think of and her cousin (the Queen) will find out.  If she doesn’t figure out a way to take care of herself, she is going to be sent off to the country to be a lady in waiting for a great aunt (the last remaining daughter of Queen Victoria).  She will never find a husband (or have any fun) out there.

Things are really not going all that well when she comes home to find a dead body in her bathtub.  I assume this is homage to Dorothy Sayers’s first Lord Peter Wimsey book Whose Body? which also has a body in a bathtub as the center of the mystery.

The American Presidency by Charles Jones (Very Short Introduction Series)

The American Presidency: A Very Short Introduction by Charles JonesSummary: A brief book on the powers and limitations of the office of President.

The American Presidency is a good example of where the Very Short Introduction series by Oxford Press can be helpful. At just over 150 pages of real content, this book can be read in a long sitting and give some real background to the subject area.

When the Very Short Introduction series gets it right, the books are usually overviews with a couple of main points. When they get it wrong, the books usually focus more on the research around the subject and forget to actually introduce the subject itself. The American Presidency is one of the former.

The main focus of the book is how the office of the President relates to the rest of the US government, which requires a short introduction to all three branches. A balanced government, with no branch dominating, was an innovation when the Constitution was written. The term President is based on the idea of presiding over something. Governor would have been a more accurate idea of the type of office envisioned, but that office had a negative connotation because of the appointed Governors prior to the Revolution.

The office of the President executes the functions of the federal government. As the country has grown in both size and complexity, the size of the government has grown and the complexity of managing a workforce of about 3 million people. (The size of federal employment has varied, but it currently approximately the same as 1967 in real numbers. Although the federal government now uses significantly more contractors, which are not included in the employment figures.)

Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life by Makoto Fujimura

Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life by Makoto FujimuraTakeaway: Culture matters. Culture needs cultivation. Beauty is central to combating utilitarian theology.

Makoto Fujimura is a gift to the church. He is now on my must read list. I do not particularly need to be convinced of the basic argument in Culture Care, culture matters. But the framing of culture in similar terms to environmental care I think makes a lot of sense in helping the reader to understand that culture is neither static nor inherently good or bad.

Culture is cultivated and if we want a culture that reflects truth and beauty need to have Christians that understand truth and beauty creating to influence culture. Fujimura starts with the assumption that Christians should be interacting with culture and creating. He is not particularly interested in creating culture where Christian is used as an adjective (Christian music, Christian movies, etc.).

Bloodchild and other Stories by Octavia Butler

Bloodchild and other Stories by Octavia ButlerSummary: Six short stories and introductions by Octavia Butler.

As regular readers know, I am not a fan of short stories. Most of the time the issue is that I want more from the stories, more characters, more story, more development.

The Bloodchild collection was one of the better short story collections I have read. In large part because each of the stories also included a discussion section by Butler. This gives me part of that more that I am looking for. I could see what prompted the story, or what she was trying to work on to give the short story greater context.

Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes the Soul by Hannah Anderson

Humble Roots- How Humility Grounds and Nourishes the Soul by Hannah AndersonSummary: Humility is the root to spiritual growth.

Humility is a hard topics. It is widely misunderstood. It is easy to have a false view of humility. And how you do accurately write about humility as a particular person? One option is to write an anonymous book about it. But that isn’t really an option now that it has been done.

I have been listening to the Persuasion Podcast with Hannah Anderson and Erin Straza (Christ and Pop Culture podcast network) pretty regularly for about a year or so. One of the reasons that I like it, is that they are unabashedly podcasting as women. They are not limiting themselves to only ‘women’s topics’, although they do talk about things that are more female oriented at times. But listening to Persuasion, as well as Pass the Mic (African American males) and Truth’s Table (African American Females) all allow me to listen into different groups that are not directly speaking to me. They are speaking as themselves and they invite people that are not like them to listen.

Listening to the audiobook of Humble Roots reminded me of the importance of listening to different voices. Hannah Anderson’s take on humility is naturally impacted by being a woman and a mother and a pastor’s wife and all of the other things that are in her background. When I think about humility there are parts of it that are just different from what Hannah Anderson has written about. And that is part of the importance of humility. Humility as a spiritual matter, reminds us that we are created creatures and not ourselves God. We have perspectives that are limited because we as creatures are limited. That doesn’t mean that we can’t understand the larger issues around concepts like humility, but it means that no matter how hard we try, we can never capture the entirety of a concept.

The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle

The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L'EngleSummary: Thoughts and memories of Madeleine’s early life and family as she deals with her mother’s impending death.

I have been really enjoying reading several of L’Engle’s books as they have been brought back to print. It is even better if you can pick them up cheaply. Today (not sure for how long) The Summer of the Great Grandmother is on sale for $0.99. Also on sale is the fourth in this series, Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage and one of her novels, The Other Side of the Sun (a dark southern thriller).

The Summer of the Great-Grandmother is about Madeleine L’Engle’s final summer with her mother. You assume from the beginning that at some point her mother will pass away (and she does.) But that is part of what is important about this book. All people will die at some point. Living in family means both birth and death happen.

The setting of this, like her other Crosswick Journals, is their summer home. It is the home that her children were born in. But now that the family lives in New York City, it is where they spend their summers. This summer, and most summers, there are four generations in the home. But unlike previous summers, Madeleine’s mothers is confused and needing constant care.

This allows for L’Engle to reflect on her early life, the death of her father when she was young, the life of he earlier ancestors and the meaning of life and family. As with the first book in this series, there is lots of wisdom in these pages.