The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015, 304 pages)
Not only is Marilynne Robinson one of the most important contemporary American novelists, she’s probably one of our most important political and theological thinkers. It’s good to know that she has the ear of people like President Obama, who cites her novel Gilead as a favorite and has also quoted her essay “Fear” (included in this collection) at public events. Robinson has a real love for America – a love for the theology that shaped it and the democratic ideals that it so often betrays.
These essays see Robinson covering much of the ground that she has covered in other essays. First, there is John Calvin and North America’s Calvinistic heritage. The chapter “Proofs” is a particularly good reflection on the nature of the mystery and sacredness of creation in Calvin’s thought. Next there are the failures of American democracy. “Fear” is a provocative reflection on an American approach to gun control laws, which Robinson characterizes as “cowardice.” Also, there is the phenomenon of human consciousness and the poverty of so much reductionistic science. “Givenness” looks to the 18th century American theologian Jonathan Edwards to critique certain attitudes in neuroscience. As usual, Robinson’s deep reserve of historical knowledge is brought to bear with eloquence and wit to address very pressing contemporary problems.
One of the features of this collection that I was excited to see was Robinson’s extended treatments of Shakespeare. As far as I can remember none of her other published essays have done so, except perhaps in passing. Shakespeare was the subject of her doctoral research, and yet it is only now that she has begun to explore his plays. Not surprisingly, her take is theological. She sees the plays, especially the later plays, as serious and brilliant engagements with the theological controversies of the Reformation.
There is no contemporary writer that I enjoy reading more than Robinson. True, her lengthy sentences and implied connections between topics can make for difficult reading. These essays require attention and reflection. However, the work pays off when you stumble across beautiful statements like these:
“Touch a limit of your understanding and it falls away, to reveal mystery upon mystery.”
“Grace is the great variable that puts any reckoning of fault or merit very far beyond human competence.”
“I have lived long enough to chalk up to age inadequacies that have been with me the whole of my conscious life.”
The Matheny Manifesto: A Young Manager’s Old School Views on Success in Sports and Life
by Mike Matheny, with Jerry B. Jenkins
(Crown Archetype, 2015, 221 pages)
The Matheny Manifesto came about when a group of parents asked Mike Matheny if he would coach their youth baseball team. Being a Christian man, Matheny decided he needed time to think and pray about his decision. As part of his decision process he felt that he needed to express to the parents exactly what they could expect from him as their coach and also what he expected from them as his players and parents: all or nothing. He wanted to get everything out in the open so they could, in turn, see if they still wanted him to coach so he wrote them a five page letter. It wound up on the internet, went viral, someone called it a manifesto and then, voila, you have the Matheny Manifesto.
Matheny is the narrator in the book and he, of course, talks a lot about coaching both the youth ball teams and also the big leagues, but he also talks about his life as a ball player. He gives some great insight on how the game should be played at all ages.
Matheny’s powerful lesson of ‘do the right thing because it is the right thing to do’ was highlighted throughout his book. He stresses the importance of teaching this to children so they will have the tools to live honorably wherever life leads them. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to appreciate Matheny’s class and dignity and just how humble he is on and off of the field. This is an inspirational read that is well written and has a lot of food for thought.
Commander in Chief by Mark Greaney
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015, 718 pages)
Commander in Chief by Mark Greaney is another Jack Ryan novel. In this novel, Jack Ryan is still President of the United States. Ryan must again deal with Russian President, Valeri Volodin. The Russian economy is sputtering. Volodin is causing havoc on many fronts. It appears that Volodin wants to take over Lithuania which would give Russia access to the Baltic Sea.
As usual, there are many subplots. Russian President Volodin is trying to hide the money that he has taken from the Russian economy for his personal gain. The NATO nations refuse to act on Russian’s potential threat to NATO member, Lithuania. An Australian family is kidnapped.
As in the other Jack Ryan and Campus novels, Tom Clancy’s name is featured prominently on the cover of the book. Tom Clancy died in 2013, but the estate allowed Mark Greaney to continue using Clancy’s characters. The Tom Clancy name sells books so I guess the name will continue to be displayed for the foreseeable future.
Wedding Cake Murder by Joanne Fluke
(Kensington Books, 2016, 370 pages)
Wedding Cake Murder by Joanne Fluke is another novel in the Hannah Swensen Mystery series. In this novel, Hannah and her sister are making a trip to New York to participate in the Food Channel’s dessert chef contest. When Hannah wins the first round, the dessert chef contest with its contestants and four judges is moved to Hannah’s hometown of Lake Eden, Minnesota. Unfortunately for Hannah, one of the four judges is murdered in Lake Eden. As usual, Hannah is determined to help find the murderer.
One of the ongoing storylines in the Hannah Swensen Mystery series is if/who Hannah will marry. For the majority of the series, there have been two suitors. In the previous novel, Double Fudge Brownie Murder, a third suitor was added. In Wedding Cake Murder, Hannah finally marries.
Even though the Hannah Swensen Mystery series always contains a murder mystery, I keep reading the series to find out what happens to Hannah and her family. Now that the suitor question has been resolved, I wonder what the next book in the series will reveal. Will there be more “mystery” in the murders or will a new plot line be developed? Will there be even more recipes? I guess I need to read the next book in the series to find out.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
(Vintage International, 2006, 288 pages)
Someone had recommended this book to me but I didn’t know what it was about. Due to the mysterious way in which things were revealed, I found it a little confusing at first. However, the deeper I got into the book and was able to piece together the events that were happening, I realized that this book was quite brilliant. There is such emotional depth to the story, through both the characters’ interactions and in the ways they handled the realization of what their purpose was. It was thought-provoking and raised questions about what it means to be human and also what happens when science is not accompanied by ethics. It is a simply told novel that was deep and profound. Definitely worth the read. (Theresa thought so, too!)
Below please find the book summary provided by Amazon:
“From the Booker Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day comes a devastating new novel of innocence, knowledge, and loss. As children Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were.
Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life. And for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special–and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together. Suspenseful, moving, beautifully atmospheric, Never Let Me Go is another classic by the author of The Remains of the Day.”
Theology and Literature after Postmodernity
edited by Zoe Lehmann Imfeld, Peter Hampson, Alison Milbank
(Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015, 304 pages)
“Theology and literature” has become a very rewarding field of interdisciplinary study. As part of the series Religion and the University, this volume demonstrates some of those rewards. This collection of essays brings together some of the most important contemporary Anglo theologians, including John and Alison Milbank, Rowan Williams, and Graham Ward, to reflect on the connections between theology, literary theory, and specific works of literature.
One of the more interesting claims of the editors is that the book demonstrates “how literature can provide a space in which diverse theological approaches can honestly and hospitably converse” (3). Similarly, they articulate a unique understanding of the basis upon which theological and literary disciplines interact. They aim “to deploy theology hospitably in a reconstructive approach to contemporary literary criticism” (4). This emphasis on a theologically motivated understanding of hospitality sets the table for a conversation between disciplines that often conflict in terms of their methodologies and basic assumptions.
The essays are collected under two headings. The first, “Pedagogy,” focuses on the university context of theological and literary study. The second, “Theological and Literary Reconstructions,” explore the connections between literary and theological concepts and texts with a view to questions raised by postmodernity. In the second group, Graham Ward’s essay “Belief and Imagination” is particularly interesting for its claim that “exploring the divine is always an exploration into the imagination” (81). Ward looks to the novels of Graham Greene for a literary example of how the imagination shapes religious belief (though really he is investigating “belief” in a more general sense). John Milbank’s broad ranging “Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative” is also noteworthy for its exploration of Christianity’s particular valuation of childhood and its expression in children’s literature. This collection does much to demonstrate how a theological stance can contribute to literary criticism and to a better understanding of specific literary texts.
The Book Club by Mary Alice Monroe
(Mira, 2003, 354 pages)
One of the book clubs I participate in chose this title for our June discussion. At first I was a little wary of the selection because it seemed like it might be a little dated, but I was pleasantly surprised how quickly the book grew on me. The Book Club focuses on the lives of five women (Eve, Annie, Doris, Gabriella, and Midge) who meet regularly for their book club. They discuss that month’s selection and catch up on what’s been going on with everyone since the last time they met. Through the course of this book each woman deals with a life event that impacts them pretty significantly. As they work through things, the women all grow in their own ways and learn how much they value the relationships they have with one another.
If it weren’t for my book club I never would have given this book a chance. I’m glad I was exposed to Mary Alice Monroe – The Book Club reminded me how much I enjoy reading titles that are often classified as “Women’s Fiction” that really just focus on female relationships and how they enhance our lives.
Secret Coders #1 by Gene Luen Yang; illustrated by Mike Holmes
(First Second, 2015, 96 pages)
Under normal circumstances Secret Coders would never have made it onto my radar. The demographic it caters to and the content don’t really shout “Julia.” However, I read an article in Wired that talked about the many reasons this was a book people should be picking up. Written by the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (and the author of the graphic classic, American Born Chinese), Yang did an amazing job making the concept of computer coding fun and accessible.
The story revolves around a young woman named Hopper who has recently been enrolled in a new school, Stately Academy. She notices there are weird aspects to her school, but she doesn’t start exploring them until she befriends another student named Eni. Together the two uncover mysterious elements hidden around their campus and in the process teach coding basics to the reader.
This book demonstrates how easy it is to make learning new things fun and accessible when you play around with the format in which they are taught. Teaching coding through a graphic novel makes the whole process more engaging. Even though I’m not the target audience for this book I did learn something and would certainly recommend this as a book for parents who are eager to expose their kids to coding and the opportunities it opens up.
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
(Viking, 2014, 373 pages)
Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings takes place in the early 19th century in Charleston, South Carolina. The Grimke family has many slaves to help with the upkeep of their home and children. The book follows the lives of one of the Grimke children, Sarah, and her slave, Hetty, to whom she was given on her 11th birthday as a gift from her parents. Even at a very young age, Sarah is displeased by the idea of slavery not only because she feels that she doesn’t need anyone to do things for her but because she also feels that there are injustices in slavery.
The story follows the girls over the next 35 years and the parallels of their lives. Hetty is determined that she will one day be able to live a life of freedom while Sarah wants to see the abolishment of slavery and equal rights for women. These are two very courageous women who will stop at nothing and no one to fulfill their dreams.
I feel what makes this dynamic story even more powerful is that these events were skillfully researched and beautifully written by Kidd. I didn’t know until the author’s note at the end that this book was based on semi-factual events of the abolitionist movement and the life of an early leader in women’s rights, Sarah Grimke. It gave me a deeper appreciation for the women who made it their goal in life to fight for the freedom of slaves and equal rights and their trials and tribulations. Thank you Sue Monk Kidd for a compelling read.
The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch
(W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, 202 pages)
To be honest, The Undertaking caught my eye because I’m fascinated by books that talk about death and dying. This collection of essays took a different approach than what I’d anticipated because I went in expecting more darkness and humor and found myself in the presence of thoughtful essays that encouraged me to think more about death and the role it plays in our lives.
Thomas Lynch is an established poet in addition to being the funeral director in the small town of Milford, MI. His way with words and his lifelong immersion in the world of death (his father was also an undertaker) gives him a unique perspective on how death impacts the lives of the living. Each essay in the book lends itself to reflection. There is humor interspersed throughout, but there’s depth here. I took my time while I was reading.
A few of my favorite essays include: “Crapper,” “The Right Hand of the Father,” “All Hallows’ Eve,” and “Tract.” Don’t let the subject matter deter you from picking up this book. It’s not a doom and gloom read, it’s insightful and well worth your time.