Andrew S · Non-Fiction · Religion

God, Sexuality, and the Self | by Sarah Coakley

God, Sexuality, and the Self

God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity”
by Sarah Coakley
(Cambridge University Press, 2013, 384 pages)

God, Sexuality, and the Self is an ambitious “new venture in systematic theology,” from Sarah Coakley, Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. It is the first of a projected four volume series on systematic theology. The project is meant to be a model of what Coakley calls théologie totale, which she defines as “a new form of systematic theology that attempts to incorporate insights from every level of society and to integrate intellectual, affective, and imaginative approaches to doctrine and practice” (352). In other words, systematic theology, which attempts to present a coherent account of the interrelation of Christian doctrines, must include more than the philosophical and exegetical tools that it traditionally employs. For Coakley, a holistic grasp of a particular doctrine, like the Trinity, must draw on the insights of aesthetics, fieldwork in the social sciences, and the ascetical discipline of contemplative prayer. She includes chapters on the importance of feminism and the social sciences for theology, the history of Trinitarian iconography, and the results of interviews from fieldwork regarding the prayer practices of charismatic Christians. Each of these veins offer something to our understanding of the Trinity that is not reducible to the other.

Coakley is convinced that this methodology is in keeping with the best of the patristic tradition. She draws heavily on the trinitarian thought of Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and Dionysius, drawing out the ways that their formulations of the Trinity are dependent on reflections on desire, sexuality, and prayer. Perhaps the fundamental conviction of the book is that, “Divine desire, and human desire for the divine, is more fundamental than gender” (342). Giving proper place to the activity of the Spirit and to the discipline of contemplation not only transforms our understanding of God’s nature, but it also transforms the way we understand the nature of our desire for the divine and all our subsequent desires and passions. To fully understand who we are and the nature of our desires, we must first grapple with our foundational desire for the divine. Contemporary theology needs to pick up on the patristic impulse to reflect on fundamental doctrines in a way that gives proper place to the affections and the imagination.

The variety and ingenuity of Coakley’s approach is exciting and original. It would be easy to underestimate just how bold such a project is. Coakley is not simply saying that theology needs to learn from other disciplines, but in fact, that all fields of study find their proper end in theology. This gives a primacy of place to theology among the disciplines that it has not been offered in within the modern university. What’s more, she does not simply theorize about possibilities in this direction, but engages in systematic reflection on God along the lines of her methodological proposal. In less capable hands, this might become a license to devalue the contributions of other disciplines or to commandeer their findings and force them into ready-made theological categories. Coakley is far too conscientious to take this path, and her synthesis shows a real openness on her part as a theologian to the methods and concerns of other disciplines and viewpoints. She is concerned that theology not simply retreat into a privatized language, and to that end, she attempts to write in a way that is accessible to informed readers who are not theologians. At times I wondered how effectively she accomplished this particular goal, but there is no doubt that she achieves a more straightforward and accessible result than most works of contemporary theology. On the whole, this is a beautifully executed (and sometimes humorous) first installment of what is sure to be groundbreaking series.

Fiction · Julia P · Young Adult

Thirteen Reasons Why | by Jay Asher

Thirteen Reasons Why

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
(Razorbill, 2007, 304 pages)

Thirteen Reasons Why revolves around the untimely death of Hannah Baker. Clay is surprised to come home to a package with no return address – what he finds inside are 7 casette tapes, each side of which is numbered.These tapes contain the thirteen reasons why Hannah decided to kill herself and each of those reasons is connected to a specific person. If you received the package containing the tapes, that means you’re on her list. Clay isn’t sure what to do; he’s stressed, he’s sad, he’s scared, but he has to listen to the tapes. As he does we learn about Hannah and what was going on in her life to make her feel like suicide was the only possible option. While she recounts her story on the tapes we hear Clay’s thoughts as he processes what he’s learning. It’s pretty shocking the things you don’t know are going on beneath the surface…

This was a good read, but I came into it expecting to be kind of blown away based on the reviews and attention the book received. It’s a unique premise with the reader “listening” along with Clay as he plays through the tapes and gains insight into why Hannah made the decision she did. I can see the appeal for the young adult crowd. Asher takes on a serious topic in a way that isn’t preachy or over the top.

Fiction · Gwen B · In the Library · Mystery · Page-Turner · Suspense

I’ve Got You Under My Skin | by Mary Higgins Clark

I've Got You Under My Skin

I’ve Got You Under My Skin by Mary Higgins Clark
(Simon & Schuster, 2014, 303 pages)


When Laurie Moran’s husband was brutally murdered, only three-year-old Timmy saw the face of his father’s killer. Five years later his piercing blue eyes still haunt Timmy’s dreams. Laurie is haunted by more—the killer’s threat to her son as he fled the scene: “Tell your mother she’s next, then it’s your turn . . .”

Now Laurie is dealing with murder again, this time as the producer of a true-crime, cold-case television show. The series will launch with the twenty-year-old unsolved murder of Betsy Powell. Betsy, a socialite, was found suffocated in her bed after a gala celebrating the graduation of her daughter and three friends. The sensational murder was news nationwide. Reopening the case in its lavish setting and with the cooperation of the surviving guests that night, Laurie is sure to have a hit on her hands. But when the estranged friends begin filming, it becomes clear each is hiding secrets . . . small and large.

And a pair of blue eyes is watching events unfold, too . . .

I always enjoy reading books by Mary Higgins Clark. I have been a big fan of hers for years. I think one of the reasons I like to read her mysteries so much is because she’s not like some authors that come out with a new book every three months. So when she does release a new one I know it’s going to be good because she really put a lot of time and thought into it.

I was waiting for this one to be released, and I was not disappointed in the outcome. This one had a lot of suspense, twists and turns, and it made me want to just keep reading it because that’s just how bad I wanted to know the outcome. I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN! It had a truly surprise ending that I was not expecting at all.

The characters are both fascinating and likeable. I’ve Got You Under My Skin keeps you guessing until the end “who done it,” along with the start of a friendship that could become more. Another great mystery and it’s full of characters who all have a motive to be the killer. If you enjoy a good clean mystery novel and have never read one of her books, pick one up and read, you won’t be disappointed.

Fiction · Page-Turner · Theresa F

The Dinner | by Herman Koch

The Dinner

The Dinner by Herman Koch
(Hogarth, 2013, 304 pages)

I didn’t know much about this book when I started reading it and when the father brings up the fact that he sees a disturbing video on his son’s phone, I have to admit, I searched for a description of the book to see where it was going.  Luckily I didn’t find out too much because the best part about this book is how the author paces the multiple revelations in the story.  I can’t say I enjoyed it, but it was hard to put down and it’s a book that will be hard to forget.

“It’s a summer’s evening in Amsterdam, and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant for dinner. Between mouthfuls of food and over the scrapings of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of polite discourse. But behind the empty words, terrible things need to be said, and with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened.  Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son. The two boys are united by their accountability for a single horrific act; an act that has triggered a police investigation and shattered the comfortable, insulated worlds of their families. As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children. As civility and friendship disintegrate, each couple show just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love.” –

You can also read Julia’s review of this title.

Biography · History · In the Library · Jean R · Non-Fiction

Mary Poppins, She Wrote | by Valerie Lawson

Mary Poppins, She Wrote

Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers
by Valerie Lawson
(Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2013, 401 pages)

After seeing the movie, Saving Mr. Banks, I decided that I wanted to know more about the author of Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers. I found Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers by Valerie Lawson. The original 1999 title of this book was Out of the Sky She Came. Valerie Lawson did quite a bit of research for this book and it shows.

P. L. Travers was born Helen Lyndon Goff in 1899 in Australia. Her father, Travers Robert Goff, was a banker who died when Helen was only seven. Travers Goff left behind a wife, three daughters, and very little money. Helen, her siblings, and her mother were taken in by their wealthy Great Aunt Ellie, who is considered to be one of the inspirations for Mary Poppins. Helen spent her young adult life working as a writer and actress trying to save up enough money to leave Australia and start a new life in London and Ireland. In 1924, Helen finally made the move to London as a journalist.

In Mary Poppins, She Wrote, P. L. Travers is portrayed as a complicated and vain woman who loved mysticism and magic. Miss Travers insisted that Mary Poppins was not a children’s book. It was a book which could be read by children. The most interesting chapters in Mary Poppins, She Wrote deal the making of the Mary Poppins movie. Although I had a little trouble getting into this biography, it was worth the read.

Andrew S · History · Non-Fiction · Religion · Sooooooo Big (700+ pages)

The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal | by Arthur Edward Waite

The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail

The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal by Arthur Edward Waite
(Rebman Limited, 1909, 713 pages)

This is a very strange book. A. E. Waite was an English writer who produced scholarly research on mystical, occult, and esoteric themes. Despite their academic quality, Waite’s books on these subjects are not simply detached observations about the development of occult practices and secret societies. Waite himself was a Freemason and a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He eventually founded his own order, the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, which fused interests in occult and magical practices with Christianity.

In The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal, Waite provides an extensive study of the textual sources that make up the legends of the Holy Grail. Grail legends which traced the progress of the chalice from the table at the Last Supper and into Europe were ubiquitous in the medieval period. Waite compares the Celtic, English, German, and French versions of those legends, which are mixtures of Christian allegories and pagan folk-tales. The study is extremely thorough (and by thorough I mean boring), but tracing an extensive history of these texts serves a different purpose than simply academic record keeping. In the Introduction, Waite says that he is “about to set forth after a new manner, and chiefly for the use of English mystics, the nature of the mystery which is enshrined in the old romance-literature of the Holy Graal” (vi). The book is ultimately about the practice of hermetic rituals as it is about literary archaeology.

Waite believes that the various manifestations of these legends point to an actual phenomenon, what he calls an “arch-natural Eucharist.” As varied as the legends are, Waite sees them as pointing to a set of secret rites centered on the Grail that are known to only a few (the “secret Church”) and embody the true spiritual meaning of the official Church and its Eucharist. Waite writes in a way that indicates personal knowledge of this “secret Church” and its rites, but he is pretty cagey about the details.

My interest in this book, and in Waite more generally, springs from the influence that it exerted on Charles Williams. Williams’ novels contain occult themes, and he was a member of Waite’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross for a time. The imaginative impact that Waite had on Williams is most evident in Williams’ two volumes of Arthurian poetry, Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars.

Andrew S · Poetry · Religion

Easter Vigil and Other Poems | by Karol Wojtyla

Easter Vigil and Other Poems

Easter Vigil and Other Poems by Karol Wojtyla;
Translated by Jerzy Peterkiewicz
(Random House, 1979, 82 pages)

The poems in this collection were written before Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II in 1978. In the introduction, Jerzy Peterkiewicz notes that the poems “indicate different stages in the spiritual growth of the future Pope” (x). They were written between 1950 and 1966, and they reflect on Marian themes, the mystery of natural elements (like water and stone), the nature of work, the nature of the Church, and the surprise of the Resurrection.

Wojtyla was writing in the context of the Communist government of postwar Poland, and there is a requisite heaviness to many of these poems. Despite the serious and sometimes bleak quality of some the poems, one of the themes that came through the clearest to me as I read them was the way in which work, even hard labor, can reveal the dignity of human beings. In “Inspiration” Wojtyla observes that “man matures through work/which inspires him to difficult good” (28).

Wojtyla is also capable of creating some striking images, as in, “The Samaritan Woman” where he depicts the Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus at a well. The well mediates the encounter between the two, and the woman reflects on the meeting: “No one between us but light/deep in the well, the pupil of the eye/set in an orbit of stones” (12).

These poems are quite beautiful, and they afford a fascinating look into the early artistic life of one of the twentieth century’s most important public figures.

Andrew S · Non-Fiction · Quick Read! · Religion

Why I Am a United Methodist | by William H. Willimon

Why I Am a United Methodist

Why I Am a United Methodist by William H. Willimon
(Abingdon Press, 1990, 128 pages)

This is a good, brief introduction to the distinctives of Methodism and the theology of John Wesley. Willimon has spent his entire life in attendance at and preaching in United Methodist churches. He has been a student and a professor in their educational institutions. He knows the denomination’s particular strengths, and he isn’t shy about calling out its weaknesses.

One of the major features of Methodism that Willimon draws out is the denomination’s social character. Methodists have a social conscience, and the impulse to pursue personal “perfection,” as Wesley taught it, often translates into a concern for social justice and political participation. While Methodism has some important doctrinal distinctives, Willimon sees it as a very practical and flexible approach to the Christian faith.

Willimon makes the point that he didn’t choose Methodism, but that he was born into it. He doesn’t see this as a problem, given that the Christian faith emphasizes grace that is received rather than earned or chosen. His assessment of the denomination is creative and sympathetic, though still tough-minded and critical.

Fiction · Food! · Julia P · Quick Read! · Relationships

Bread and Butter | by Michelle Wildgen

Bread and Butter

Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen
(Doubleday, 2014, 313 pages)

Bread and Butter looks primarily at the relationship between three brothers living in Pennsylvania. The oldest two, Lou and Britt, own a restaurant called Winesap. Winesap has made an impact on their small community by providing a place for fine dining that is more accessible than driving to Philadelphia. When their younger brother Harry returns home and decides to open his own restaurant Lou and Britt aren’t quite sure what to make of things. Harry has always been in his own world. He’s more than a decade younger than each of his older brothers and he’s had a very different upbringing with various academic paths and deciding to venture off to experience things first-hand, like helping run a restaurant on an isolated island in Michigan.

The vision Harry has for his restaurant, Stray, is completely different from what’s going on at Winesap. He wants nothing more than his brother’s approval, but it’s hard for them to take Harry seriously in this endeavor. We see the brothers as they work to redefine their relationships and as they strive to keep their restaurants successful. I enjoyed this book – Wildgen doesn’t skimp on the food/restaurant talk which I appreciated and I also liked that the focus was on the relationship between the brothers. A good first-time novel.

Fiction · Quick Read! · Sadie J · Young Adult

If I Stay | by Gayle Forman

If I Stay

If I Stay by Gayle Forman
(Dutton Juvenile, 2009, 201 pages)

Mia knows that soon she can’t put off the decision of where her life will go much longer. She’s seventeen-years-old and just auditioned for Julliard. But if she was accepted she would be moving across the country and leaving her boyfriend, Adam, who is in a band rising in popularity. But before she makes that choice, she is faced with an even bigger one. Her family is involved in a car accident and Mia is stuck until she decides if she wants to stay or go. If she goes, she will be reunited with her family who didn’t survive the accident. If she stays, she will have to face her life without them.

This was a fairly quick read that didn’t take long to get to the premise of the story. The story was told varying between Mia in the in-between state trying to decide if she should stay and Mia’s life before the accident. The flashbacks were a great addition because it allows the reader to see what Mia will be missing in her life if she stays because her family is gone. I didn’t find the ending too surprising but I enjoyed reading how Mia came to her decision.