Faith and Spirituality

A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community

Part memoir, part spiritual re-evaluation, John Pavlovitz’s book, A Bigger Table, examines the type of invitation the world desperately needs. Recent political and religious events are creating more exclusive, more isolated communities, even within the church. While this may seem a reasonable fear reaction from the world, the church is called to a higher purpose: to invite any one and every one to the table, and a different way of living and loving.

Like me, John has undergone his own faith deconstruction and reconstruction. He has been both welcomed into and excommunicated from the church. I related to his questions and his search. I understand the discomfort of hearing dissonance between the pulpit and the gospel. I know how hard it is to not become so jaded and cynical you simply walk away from organized religion altogether.

But Mr. Pavlovitz doesn’t merely provide a grocery list of problems he finds within church walls, he also shares communities and ministries that are choosing inclusion over exclusion. He examines different and possibly new ways to approach individuals of different faith, sexuality and lifestyle based on our sameness more than our differences. He argues that the table Christ offers is more than large enough to accommodate all who seek to know God and each other better.

From the publisher:

No one likes to eat alone; to approach a table filled with people, only to be told that despite the open chairs there isn’t room for you. The rejection stings. It leaves a mark. Yet this is exactly what the church has been saying to far too many people for far too long: “You’re not welcome here. Find someplace else to sit.” How can we extend unconditional welcome and acceptance in a world increasingly marked by bigotry, fear, and exclusion?

Pastor John Pavlovitz invites readers to join him on the journey to find―or build―a church that is big enough for everyone. He speaks clearly into the heart of the issues the Christian community has been earnestly wrestling with: LGBT inclusion, gender equality, racial tensions, and global concerns. A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, Hopeful Spiritual Community asks if organized Christianity can find a new way of faithfully continuing the work Jesus began two thousand years ago, where everyone gets a seat.

Pavlovitz shares moving personal stories and his careful observations as a pastor to set the table for a new, more loving conversation on these and other important matters of faith. He invites us to build the bigger table Jesus imagined, practicing radical hospitality, total authenticity, messy diversity, and agenda-free community.

Literary Fiction

The Story of Arthur Truluv

I have a list of author’s I turn to when I need a little comfort, when what I want is a happy ending and a better opinion of humanity as whole when I walk away. Elizabeth Berg is on the list of those authors. Her books are all about human connection and relationships, and the unlikely places we find the help we need to carry on. Enter Arthur Moses.

The Story of Arthur Truluv is in the vein of A Man Called Ove, which I am sure will lead to some criticism. However, I believe firmly there are a million ways to tell a story. Ove doesn’t own the platform of finding relationships after losing your wife late in life. It’s an experience shared by hundreds of people in hundreds of places every day. There’s more than enough room for someone else’s story.

Arthur has recently lost his wife Nola when he meets Maddy Harris, a social misfit who hides from school bullies in the local cemetery. Maddy knows a something about loss, having lost her mother only two weeks after her birth in a freak accident. Maddy’s father never recovered from this loss and Maddy lives a life of isolation, sorrow and desperation to feel a connection with someone, anyone.

Meanwhile, Arthur’s neighbor Lucille is about to find happiness in a way she never expected, only to lose it again in a way so unexpected and devastating, she fears she will never find happiness again. At least, until these three find their lives intertwined in ways they would never have predicted in a thousand years.

Full of hope and wisdom and the search for a place of acceptance and comfort, The Story of Arthur Truluv is a gentle and amusing way to spend a day or two in a well written story which delivers exactly what it’s meant to – a sense of comfort and hope in humanity once more.

From the Publisher:

An emotionally powerful novel about three people who each lose the one they love most, only to find second chances where they least expect them

“Fans of Meg Wolitzer, Emma Straub, or [Elizabeth] Berg’s previous novels will appreciate the richly complex characters and clear prose. Redemptive without being maudlin, this story of two misfits lucky to have found one another will tug at readers’ heartstrings.”—Booklist

For the past six months, Arthur Moses’s days have looked the same: He tends to his rose garden and to Gordon, his cat, then rides the bus to the cemetery to visit his beloved late wife for lunch. Sometimes in the evening he’ll take a walk and stop to chat with his nosy neighbor, Lucille. It’s a quiet routine not entirely without its joys. The last thing Arthur would imagine is for one unlikely encounter to utterly transform his life. 

Eighteen-year-old Maddy Harris is an introspective girl who often comes to the cemetery to escape the other kids at school and a life of loss. She’s seen Arthur sitting there alone, and one afternoon she joins him—a gesture that begins a surprising friendship between two lonely souls. Moved by Arthur’s kindness and devotion, Maddy gives him the nickname “Truluv.” As Arthur’s neighbor Lucille moves into their orbit, the unlikely trio bands together, helping one another, through heartache and hardships, to rediscover their own potential to start anew.

Wonderfully written and full of profound observations about life, The Story of Arthur Truluv is a beautiful and moving novel of compassion in the face of loss, of the small acts that turn friends into family, and of the possibilities to achieve happiness at any age.

Literary Fiction · Mystery/Thriller

The Lost Book of the Grail

Arthur Prescott has always believed in the truth of the Holy Grail. Not only that, he also believes the town where his grandparents lived, and where he now lives as a grown-up holds a key piece to the quest. Can he find it before technology and modernity obliterate any memory of Ewolda’s book?

This book is part National Treasure, part Indiana Jones and part Over Sea, Under Stone. Although I found the plot enchanting, it was occasionally difficult to keep the characters and piecemeal storyline stretching over thousands of years in order. Arthur is almost too stodgy and uptight at times, though his supporting cast is surprisingly quirky and fun. If you ever thought adventure would be better found in libraries and monasteries, then the level of action will be right up your alley.

I chose this book because it was on Modern Mrs. Darcy’s summer reading list, and I enjoyed it enough that I will certainly read more by this author. This is my first book by him and other than the title, I had no idea what to expect when I began, which may be why it took me several chapters to really get into this book.

From the Publisher: From the New York Times bestselling author of The Bookman’s Tale comes a new novel about an obsessive bibliophile’s quest through time to discover a missing manuscript, the unknown history of an English Cathedral, and the secret of the Holy Grail.

Arthur Prescott is happiest when surrounded by the ancient books and manuscripts of the Barchester Cathedral library. Increasingly, he feels like a fish out of water among the concrete buildings of the University of Barchester, where he works as an English professor. His one respite is his time spent nestled in the library, nurturing his secret obsession with the Holy Grail and researching his perennially unfinished guidebook to the medieval cathedral.

But when a beautiful young American named Bethany Davis arrives in Barchester charged with the task of digitizing the library’s manuscripts, Arthur’s tranquility is broken. Appalled by the threat modern technology poses to the library he loves, he sets out to thwart Bethany, only to find in her a kindred spirit with a similar love for knowledge and books and a fellow Grail fanatic.

Bethany soon joins Arthur in a quest to find the lost Book of Ewolda, the ancient manuscript telling the story of the cathedral’s founder. And when the future of the cathedral itself is threatened, Arthur and Bethany’s search takes on grave importance, leading the pair to discover secrets about the cathedral, about the Grail, and about themselves

Mystery/Thriller

The Night Child

*Trigger warning. This book has graphic violence and sexual content

When Nora begins to hallucinate about a blond haired, blue-eyed child with no body, her carefully crafted life as a wife, mother and high school teacher slowly falls apart. She begins seeing a psychiatrist when no biological solution can be found for her visions or frequent headaches. What emerges from these sessions is the truth about her past. Will what she has never been able to face shatter her or will she be able to embrace her past and move forward into the future?

To begin with, there is a great deal of promise in this debut novel. It is a fast-paced adventure which I read in one sitting. It definitely needs a TRIGGER WARNING as the content deals with childhood sexual assault, occasionally quite graphically. Anna Quinn’s writing is beautiful, often haunting and poetic. She draws the reader in and makes you chase her breathlessly to the resolution.

However, I was disappointed that the book was so ruthlessly plot driven. From the opening sentence we are thrust violently into the action with no reason to sympathise with, trust or even like Nora, the protagonist. I wanted the story to slow down occasionally, allowing me to take a breath and understand the characters more deeply. Even Nora’s husband Paul , who tried to be a two-dimensional jerk in the book, felt that with a little development and nuance could become a complex and sympathetic character. Perhaps this is a matter of taste and character development isn’t what’s wanted in a thriller. But I felt like this book danced on the edge of something much richer and more complex which I would have liked to see come to fruition. I sense that Ms. Quinn has the skill to produce something more than a “non-stop thrill ride” and I hope to see her develop that in further efforts.

From the publisher:

All Nora Brown wants is to teach high school English and live a quiet life in Seattle with her husband and six-year-old daughter. But one November day, moments after dismissing her class, a girl’s face appears above the students’ desks—a wild numinous face with startling blue eyes, a face floating on top of shapeless drapes of purples and blues where arms and legs should have been. Terror rushes through Nora’s body—the kind of raw terror you feel when there’s no way out, when every cell in your body, your entire body, is on fire—when you think you might die.

Twenty-four hours later, while on Thanksgiving vacation, the face appears again. This time, it whispers, Remember the Valentine’s dress. Shaken once again, Nora meets with neurologists and eventually, a psychiatrist. As the story progresses, a terrible secret is discovered—a secret that pushes Nora toward an even deeper psychological breakdown.

The Night Child is a breathtaking story about split consciousness, saving a broken child, and the split between past and present. It’s about the extraordinary capacity within each of us to save ourselves through visionary means.

Literary Fiction

Summer at Bluebell Bank

One thing I truly love to do is curl up with a novel by Romamunde Pilcher or Maeve Binchy. I adore the coziness of their stories and the very pervasive sense of place in each novel. I was hopeful for a similar experience when I read the synopsis of this novel.

Jen Mouat has taken on quite a task, weaving an intricate plot with many, many character and pieces, as well as an intricate backstory to pull into the present through memories and flashbacks. This is a story which could easily get bogged down. But I am so happy to say it does not. Instead of feeling rushed or crowded, the story unfolds at a nice pace. Each piece unfolds at the right time and in a nice rhythm, never feeling out of place or forced.

Ms. Mouat has written a wonderful story about the complexity of family, friendships and the difficulties of change. She explores the secrets we keep and the deceptions we use to keep from feeling rejection and lonliness. The Cotton family is full of love and tradition as well as tension and the struggle to establish an identity in a large, rowdy family. Coming from a similar family dynamic, I found them familiar and lovely.

As an added bonus, the story bounces between a cozy bookstore to be and a lovely family summer home – now full-time residence- with all the layers of memory and tradition that accompany that setting.

From the publisher: Summoned by her childhood best friend, Kate Vincent doesn’t stop to think. Instead she books at one-way ticket from New York back to Wigtown, Scotland, leaving her glittering new life behind. Scenes of idyllic holidays at Bluebell Bank with the Cotton family dance in her mind, but not everything has stayed the way it once was…

Kate has given herself until the end of the summer to stay in Wigtown. Can she bring the Cottons back together, and save the family who once saved her?

 

 

Literary Fiction

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf

Earlier this year I decided I want to read more books by diverse authors. I especially want to read more from the perspective of the Islamic community, both here and abroad. One of the reasons I enjoy reading is because it opens me to perspectives and experiences that I may not ever have otherwise. I’ve read multiple books by Middle Eastern authors this year, ( here, here, and here) but The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is the first I have read from the perspective of a Muslim woman living in America.

Set in Indiana in the 1970’s, this story explores what it is like to come of age in a place where you are consistently “the other” and often “the enemy.” Khadra lives with her father, mother and two brothers in a small Muslim community in Indiana. Her father is one of the coordinators for an Islamic community center. While Khadra and her family live in America, eventually even becoming citizens after the Iranian revolution, they do not wish to become part of American culture. In fact, as Khadra grows up, it becomes harder and harder for her to hold to the rigid tenets of a culture she loves deeply, but which she also feels keeps her from becoming fully herself.

Told as a retrospective from an adult Khadra who has broken away from her community and lives independently as a photo-journalist, this is a coming of age story unlike any I have read before. Khadra is brave, beautiful and complicated in ways which make her more alike than unlike any of us who struggle to find our voice and our way. Her spiritual struggles resonated deeply with questions I have asked of my own theology and faith community.

I loved this story deeply. While in part I think it may be a case of the perfect book at the perfect time, I also know it’s a beautiful and important story for any person at any time. This is one of my favorites of the year so far. I can’t wait to read more by this author and about Islamic culture.

From the publisher: Syrian immigrant Khadra Shamy is growing up in a devout, tightly knit Muslim family in 1970s Indiana, at the crossroads of bad polyester and Islamic dress codes. Along with her brother Eyad and her African-American friends, Hakim and Hanifa, she bikes the Indianapolis streets exploring the fault-lines between “Muslim” and “American.”

When her picture-perfect marriage goes sour, Khadra flees to Syria and learns how to pray again. On returning to America she works in an eastern state — taking care to stay away from Indiana, where the murder of her friend Tayiba’s sister by Klan violence years before still haunts her. But when her job sends her to cover a national Islamic conference in Indianapolis, she’s back on familiar ground: Attending a concert by her brother’s interfaith band The Clash of Civilizations, dodging questions from the “aunties” and “uncles,” and running into the recently divorced Hakim everywhere.

Beautifully written and featuring an exuberant cast of characters, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf charts the spiritual and social landscape of Muslims in middle America, from five daily prayers to the Indy 500 car race. It is a riveting debut from an important new voice.

Nonfiction - Health and Well-being

Good Night: A Mindful Approach to Healthy Sleep, Positive Dreaming, and Waking to Your Best Self

I’ve had trouble sleeping since receiving a cancer diagnosis over twenty years ago. This is a common occurrence with traumatic medical diagnoses which often corrects itself over time. For me, it set a pattern of behavior that includes insomnia as my standard stress response. Sleep itself, or the difficulty in getting healthy sleep, creates stress, which causes insomnia, which increases stress. It becomes a terrible pattern.

This year I began to really focus on sleep as well as meditation, positive thought patterns and other mindfulness practices. I have read a few other sleep books this year, but this is the first directed entirely to more mental and meditative practices.

This book is divided into three parts: simple sleep habits, dream journals, and gentle waking practices. Scattered through out the book are dreamy illustrations and quotes about sleep, rest, and mindfulness. The tone is gentle and the chapters short with many practical examples to put into practice.

Although some of the tips overlap with other sleep books, the dreaming and waking sections were something I have not encountered in other books. I am not one who remembers dreams very often and have never experienced a desire to interpret them (even feeling a bit of skepticism about the practice), but the ideas and practices in the dream section still help some appeal and may change the way I approach even this aspect of my life.

Perhaps the part I enjoyed most about the book were the mindful waking practices detailed in the third section of the book. I’m not one to leap out of bed ready to embrace the day, so these gentle ideas will definitely make their way into my morning routine.

Overall, I believe this book offers many practical options and plenty of thoughtful considerations to improve sleep habits, not only for the poor sleeper, but also those prone to lengthy hibernation.

I received this book free for fair review from NetGalley