Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: CAN YOU SEE ANYTHING NOW? by Katherine James

It took me quite some time to read Can You See Anything Now? by Katherine James (Paraclete Press, 2017).

Can You See Anything Now?

That might seem like a strange way to start a book review, but hear me out. It’s 2018, and while calling 2018 one of the worst years in human history would be inaccurate and short-sighted, it’s fair to say it’s been a stressful time, a year of daily assaults on peace and justice, a year to twist the brain of any reasonable, logical person inside out.

(Actually, they’re currently saying 536 CE was the worst year in human history, so let’s all take a moment to be thankful we missed that one.)

I have not reached for heavy books. There have been too many hard things in the world to make me seek them in books. I cannot count the number of books I have abandoned this year, with a “Nope. Not today.”

Can You See Anything Now? is a heavy book. Any review must be honest about that. It’s a book in which characters struggle with suicide, self-harm, and addiction, and their milder cousins despair, poor body image, and general malaise and loss of direction.

If we’re honest, we’ve all struggled with at least one of these things at some point, or we know someone who has.

I discovered Paraclete Press through Sarah Arthur’s literary devotionals, so I had already read excerpts of this book before publication in Between Midnight and Dawn, and I knew the basic outline.

Pixie, a college student addicted to cutting, accompanies her roommate Noel home over Thanksgiving break to a small New England town—where it seems no one believes they matter to the world—and falls into a freezing river, which leaves her in a coma while the other characters play out their lives around her.

Can You See Anything Now? won the 2018 Christianity Today Fiction Book Award, and I asked myself why.

Here’s the answer I came up with: it’s different. Very different, in fact, from what I think most people think of when they think of stereotypical “Christian fiction.”

For me, too often Christian fiction has a bit of an unreal quality. The characters are too good or too goody two-shoes, too devoted, too certain. They don’t ever say anything stronger than golly gosh or drink anything stronger than coffee. Serious struggles are too handily resolved with a prayer and a pie. None of this has been my experience in the church or in the real world.

If you are looking for a “typical” Christian read, this is probably not the book for you. If you’re looking for a light, breezy read, this is probably not the book for you. If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts or self-harm, this might be a book to stay away from right now. I stayed away from it—all the while knowing I needed to write this review—for a while because wrestling with these things seemed like too much on top of the 2018 news cycle.

But if you find yourself in a place where you want or need to explore these issues—issues that do confront us every single day and must be dealt with—then try Can You See Anything Now?

Slow as I was to complete this review, I think it makes sense that I’m publishing it during the holiday season—and not just because Pixie’s accident happens over Thanksgiving. One of the things I love about this time of year is that, if we let it, it allows us to hold the light and the darkness in tension with one another. My avoidance of hard books in the face of hard news has come with a guilty conscience. I know I have a responsibility to look, to acknowledge the difficult things.

The title asks us, Can You See Anything Now? If we are to do that, we have to confront the darkness to find the light.* Fiction can be a great place to start that process.

*As O. Henry begs, “Forget the hashed metaphor.”

(I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

 

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Book Review: THIS CHILD OF FAITH by Sophfronia Scott and Tain Gregory

I received Sophfronia Scott’s memoir This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World from Paraclete Press in January, right before I left on a 2-week trip to Northern Ireland. On the night of February 14, I was lying in a Dublin hotel room, trying to get my daughter to sleep before our flight to New York the next day, when news alerts about the Parkland shooting started lighting up my phone.

Awash in that deep sense of utter hopelessness, frustration, and anger that has overwhelmed me after so many mass shootings, the last thing I wanted to do was put my daughter on that plane and take her back to a country determined to fiddle while Rome burns. I grew up in a time when children from Northern Ireland spent summers in the United States, away from the violence in their own country. At the time, I could never have imagined that I would feel safer with my own child in Belfast than taking her out in our own town, never knowing where and when some disturbed individual who’s managed to get his hands on one of the United States’ many assault rifles will decide to attack next.

It was a familiar feeling, not wanting to get on the plane. I’d felt it a year and a half earlier when I returned from Scotland after the Pulse nightclub shooting. I’ll tell you what it doesn’t feel like: it doesn’t feel like freedom.

The last thing I wanted to do when I landed was read about a child who survived the Sandy Hook shooting, so it took me some time to confront This Child of Faith.

This Child of Faith

Here’s the jacket copy:

Tain Gregory was present in his third-grade classroom on the morning of the Sandy Hook shootings. As part of the healing process after the tragedy, Tain was asked, “What’s the most important thing in the world to you?” Tain thought for a moment, then answered with one word: “God.”

Tain surprised every adult in the room, including his mother, who “had no idea how firmly rooted Tain’s faith was within him” (x).

This Child of Faith is Scott’s story of her own faith journey from childhood through motherhood, and her faith journey with her son, interspersed with “Tain’s Take,” short pieces Tain writes to share his perspective on the topics his mother addresses.

This is a beautiful book, and I’m sorry it took me so long to read it because I love it. I highlighted many passages and will probably read it again.

Scott writes:

Tain and I wrote this book to shine a light on possible answers for parents by sharing our story. We hope our experiences will help parents get to the heart of a question that becomes more perturbing as our world grows ever more complicated. How do you help a child have faith—real faith, something he or she owns and not a regurgitation of something heard? How do you create a life space where a child can learn to understand what they believe?

But please note: this is not an instructional “how-to” book. As you’ll see, we muddle along because there is no direct route here.

[…]

Frequently in this book, you’ll see various forms of I don’t know. (xi-xii)

I related to Sophfronia Scott’s experience on so many levels, from my imaginative childhood to my medically and emotionally rocky road to motherhood of an only child to life as a professional writer. And, while I grew up United Methodist and so have had “organized religion” in my life since birth (unlike Scott, whose childhood experience of church was more sporadic) I related to a perspective found but rarely in religious pop culture in the United States: that of the Progressive Intellectual Christian, which is what I consider myself.

Like Scott, I had run-ins with evangelical groups in college eager to convince me of all the ways and all the people God just couldn’t help damning to hell, wanted me to believe things about the Bible that as an English and History scholar I knew to be impossible, and wanted to tell me how, as a woman, I was destined for a “separate sphere” from men. Nope, nope, and nope. (And nope to most of the rest of what those groups were selling, as well.)

Scott decided to follow Tain’s lead when it came to church, which led her family to Trinity Episcopal in Newtown, CT. Much of the book follows their journey into a faith community that “fit.” In a world where the white evangelical church is leading our country down a dark path and in which Christians with narrow and misguided views dominate the popular understanding of people of faith in this country, it was refreshing to have my own mainline, progressive Protestantism reflected in print and provided me with opportunities to reflect on what this tradition means for my life and my motherhood.

While I was initially afraid to approach a book that dealt with a school shooting, I need not have been. Scott does not spare readers in describing the day and the aftermath of the shooting, but she handles a community’s grief in a meaningful, fruitful way, assuring us that, while God does not cause bad things to happen, God can bring good out of evil.

One thing I especially appreciated is the perspective Scott has on children. She does not idealize children, and she does not expect them to somehow be “more holy” than adults. She treats children, including her own child self and her son, as fully realized people, which is a perspective rarer than you might think. Least of all is this a manual for forcing church and religion on children, which I also appreciated.

I’d like to share with you one final passage that resonated:

As a writer, I know it’s important to be able to rest in and accept the place of not knowing. The poet John Keats called it negative capability. To be in such a space, for me anyway, requires a constant letting go and reminding myself that it’s okay not to know. How can a child come to learn this when they are in a period of nonstop questioning and learning and wanting to know? (81).

A few nights ago, frustrated by bedtime prayers, I told my husband that people had been misinterpreting Jesus’ call to enter the kingdom like a little child all these years. “Little children ask a lot of questions,” I said, possibly through gritted teeth.

If you’re interested in reading an honest story of a family’s journey through faith in the age of mass shootings, I encourage you to pick up This Child of Faith.

Scott, Sophfronia and Tain Gregory. This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World. Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2017. 186 pages. $16.99

(I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

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Book Review: AT HOME IN THIS LIFE by Jerusalem Jackson Greer

I’m departing from my usual focus on history and children’s literature to review a book I had the opportunity of reading back in the final third of 2017. In my interview with Carmela Martino on her book Playing by Heart, I shared that despite identifying as a mainline Protestant myself, I tend to steer clear of religious publishers, for a variety of reasons, some of which I discussed in my interview with Carmela.

One of those reasons is that I’m a giant nerd and I require a certain level of intellectual rigor in my reading material and a large amount of acknowledgment of things like scientific facts (Climate change is real!) and progressive thinking (Straight cisgender white men are not somehow closer to God than the rest of us!) in my religious life. One publisher that usually ticks these boxes for me is Paraclete Press, so when an opportunity came along to get a free book in exchange for an honest review (That’s what this is!), you can bet I jumped at it.

The title At Home in this Life: Finding Peace at the Crossroads of Unraveled Dreams and Beautiful Surprises drew me first. I had no idea what Jerusalem Jackson Greer’s book was about, but I knew that was where I was. I had just completed (Ha, completed! Physically moved my body and possessions is more like it.) a cross-country move that had come as a complete surprise to me, I was not feeling one bit at home, and I felt like most of my dreams had unraveled.

The book, which is available with an 8-week reading and discussion plan for individuals or groups, is Jerusalem’s memoir of learning to be where she is, something I and many others struggle with (at least according to everyone’s New Year’s resolutions to be more present), by studying the Rule of St. Benedict and Jeremiah 29 in context. Context is key for me in any literary or historical study. I live in The Frozen North now, but I grew up in South Carolina, where people make whole careers out of cutting random Bible verses out of context and out of vinyl and slapping them on anything that will stand still and anyone who is experiencing a crisis. (I am not saying I don’t love you, South Carolina. I am just saying you know that’s true.) As Jerusalem points out, Christians love to smack  people experiencing generalized life dissatisfaction with Jeremiah 29:11,  (For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”) When I learned in the book that Jerusalem is also not a fan of this band-aid theology, I knew we were kindred spirits.

In that way, anyway. The outward form of Jerusalem’s inner journey toward presence follows the course of her dream of ditching her city home and owning a farm. Through sections titled Going, Staying, Digging In, and Spreading Out, we learn how the dream developed, was deferred, and was finally realized—much later and in different ways than Jerusalem had planned. Jerusalem is also a lifestyle blogger. She is a person who probably knew of the phrase “refresh your mantels” before it appeared in her Facebook feed accompanied by an explanatory picture. She wrote a whole other book called A Homemade Year. It’s about making things, as you might have been able to tell from the title.

A Homemade Year

These are not things I do. I live most of my life in my own head, as a professional writer and reader. My new house doesn’t even have mantels, so I don’t need to worry about refreshing them. *sighs with relief* I never think about what I’m going to wear in the morning before I put it on, and it would never occur to me to craft when I could be reading. I have never daydreamed about keeping chickens or hanging my laundry in the backyard, though I can see the environmental benefits.

And yet. The lessons of Jerusalem’s journey are transferable, and I think they are transferable whether or not you are a Christian or a crafter. I found reading her book to be like talking to an old and very funny friend. In the last sentence of the introduction, Jerusalem writes,

What follows in these chapters is the story of how everything I thought would make me happy came undone, and then how I found a way to make myself at home in this beautiful, messy, amazingly tender, completely unbalanced life, by imperfectly practicing one spiritual discipline at a time—smack in the middle of raising the kids, mending the sweaters, and burning the bread.

 Though I have never mended a sweater, these words called to me. If they call to you, I encourage you to check out At Home in this Life wherever you like to buy books.

Greer, Jerusalem Jackson. At Home in this Life: Finding Peace at the Crossroads of Unraveled Dreams and Beautiful Surprises. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2017. (Paperback, $18.99)

 

 

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