Archive for the ‘Christian’ Category


Recommended to me by a children’s librarian who was making a display of children’s books that adults love to read, this little book provided some unexpected moments of grace in a grumpy day.

Prolific Newbery award-winning author Cynthia Rylant has produced a book that all ages could find quirky, thought-provoking and beguiling. It may not be for everyone, since the basic premise is that God is visiting earth in various everyday situations to see what living on earth is like. Written in verse, it includes some startling moments such as when God opens a shop called “Nails by Jim,” an idea I find surprising, but oddly beautiful:
“He got into nails, of course,
Because He’d always loved
Hands ——
Hands were some of the best things
He’d ever done”

God Got a Dog portrays God personally with human failings and doubts:
“He knew He WAS
but he didn’t
always feel that way. Not every day).”

Like Cynthia Rylant’s other books it is idiosyncratic, unconventional and gently effervescent, and made me look at the world in a slightly different way. Reading it was a small break from the day.

These poems were previously published as part of a longer teen book called God Went to Beauty School. To appeal to a younger audience, in God Got a Dog each poem has a lovely, calm and muted illustration, with a wide viewpoint that gives a sense of large scale.

God Got a Dog will suit adult readers who are interested in children’s books and it will also appeal to anyone who is eager to explore quirky ideas about religion.

Check the WRL catalog for God Got a Dog.

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firstphonecallMitch Albom, author of the best-seller Tuesdays with Morrie, continues to write inspirational books exploring faith and humanity.  I find his books easy to read with simple plots and sympathetic characters, but each also has a message that lingers.

The First Phone Call from Heaven takes place in a small Michigan town. One morning three different people receive phone calls from family members who have passed away. A short conversation–maybe just a phrase–but sending the message that they were communicating from heaven.

That same day Sullivan Harding is released from prison.

The plot jumps from the history of the telephone to Sully’s story of why he went to prison to the growing interest in these heavenly phone calls.

Sully is is trying to carve out a normal life–a life shared with his young son, Julian, but without his beloved wife; a life as an ex-convict, not a respected Navy pilot. The calls intersect directly with Sully when Julian starts questioning when he is going to get a message from his mom. Julian doesn’t see the difference between Sully going away to prison and coming back, and his mom dying and not coming back. Sully determines to get to the bottom of where these calls are really coming from so his son doesn’t hold out false hope for his mom’s return.

Meanwhile the calls themselves are gaining national attention.  A small-time reporter gets the first interview with a women who received a call from her deceased sister. The video goes viral, throwing the small town into chaos as more and more people come to witness the miracle phone calls.

The plot reminds me a little bit about the movie Heaven is for Real, which Chris reviewed a few weeks ago. The phone calls are either real or a complete hoax depending on what you believe. Albom explores the ramifications from many different angles–the individuals receiving the calls, the religious community, the news outlets, the believers, the unbelievers, the  curious. And like I said, it will leave you thinking long after you finish the book.

Check with WRL catalog for The First Phone Call from Heaven

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Something happened in Levy, South Carolina when Magnolia was seven years old. She is now in her eighties living in a nursing home, possibly with Alzheimer’s.  In her own words she is “trapped somewhere deep behind my eyes, waving… calling… but no one can hear me.” Her husband George is dying, but with his trademark dry humor, he knows that they have enjoyed a good life and he still adores his beautiful wife “even though [we’re] on the first floor where dementia lives, even though we are older than dirt, she is lovely and sweet and she is my bride.” But they are both learning that the past is never lost when people who lived through it are still alive.

When a life-size photograph of Magnolia and Joe, a stranger from their past, arrive at the home on the same day, we start to learn of a tangled web of lives, in the present and in the distant past. Each character, from Annie, their kind, but disappointed caretaker, to Ash, Magnolia’s long lost brother, tells his or her own story, some in the first person, some in the third person. Most of the characters have long buried secrets to hide and may not even admit the truth to themselves, so beware: everyone may not be a reliable narrator.

The Inheritance of Beauty can be read on several different levels. First it is a straightforward novel, with a leisurely revelation of the 70-year-old mystery, while it describes the sadness of families split by terrible circumstances who never get back together because no one wants to be the first to make contact. The characters are well-drawn, memorable and mostly thoroughly likable. It can be enjoyed as a touching love story of Magnolia and George’s relationship that lasted from childhood into old age. It also has touches of magic realism that are harder to spot: when my book club discussed it, only one of us noticed that a journey to a pond and a wetting symbolized a character’s baptism and rebirth.

The Inheritance of Beauty will appeal to lovers of Southern fiction, particularly for caretaker Annie’s lovely speech patterns. It is a good book for readers of Still Alice by Lisa Genova, which also deals with Alzheimer’s Disease, but on more practical everyday level.

Check the WRL catalog for The Inheritance of Beauty.

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CallTheMidwifeCall the Midwife is a fascinating mix of social history and medical memoir, as well as a vivid portrait of a time and place, but that description (glowing as it is) hardly does justice to a book that made me laugh out loud one minute and sob in sorrow the next, and even look forward to my commute so I could enter the book’s world and hear what happened next.

Jennifer Worth (known as Jenny) was a young nurse in the 1950s and she became a midwife with a order of nuns in the slums of the East End of London. Her memoir was published in 2002 so, from the distance of five decades she is in a good position to talk about how medicine and the world have changed. Some of the changes are bad, like the breakdown of families that she has seen among poor people in London, but so many things changed for the better, like medical knowledge and standard of living (plumbing for one thing!). When she started as a midwife most births were at home, attended only by a midwife and as a 23-year-old nurse who was often the only professional present. This was a great step up from no antenatal or birth care, which she says was common prior to 1950 for the poor people of London.  If you are squeamish, this may not be the book for you: many births are described in detail. A glossary of medical terms is included at the end to help the uninitiated.

The humor throughout comes from the hijinks of young nurses and foibles of the nuns, several of whom had nursed through World War I. Worth expresses deep sorrow at the devastating conditions of the workhouse or the fourteen-year-old Irish runaway who is manipulated into working as a prostitute. Jennifer Worth is a memoirist who doesn’t put herself at the center of her story, but tells the stories of others who she came to as an outsider: a non-Catholic living with nuns and a middle-class woman among the Cockneys. She always strives to understand their lives on their terms, rather than imposing her views and even creates a 14-page appendix “On the difficulties of writing the Cockney dialect.” Her talent is capturing the diverse characters on the page, and making the reader care about them.

This book should appeal to watchers of Downton Abbey for the historical domestic British connection. For those like to hear about the lives of real and everyday people it will grab readers of Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell; Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming; or a new book, Minding the Manor: The Memoir of a 1930s Kitchen Maid, by Mollie Moran. I also recommend it for anyone who is interested in memoir, medical history, women’s lives or social problems.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife on CD read wonderfully by Nicola Barber.

I haven’t had a chance to view the BBC series adapted from the book, but it has great reviews, so it is on my list. Check the WRL catalog for the BBC adaptation of Call the Midwife.

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WorldsStrongestLibrarianThis sometimes ludicrous, but always poignant memoir is in part a love poem to public libraries and in part a moving account of living with Tourette’s Syndrome. Josh Hanagarne is a librarian in Salt Lake City Public Library who starts his book by describing  his workplace as “a giant pair of glass underpants” and pointing out that in the collection of a public library “there’s something to offend everyone.” He keeps up the literary theme with chapter headings labelled with Dewey Decimal Numbers and a sprinkling of the names of books to make his points.

At the same time that is is a celebration of libraries, Hanagarne’s book is also the story of a life lived with the involuntary tics, movements and vocalizations of Tourette’s Syndrome. Hanagarne’s tics started when he was a small boy and made a misery of his teenage years as he dealt with a a difficult and–above all–visible disease. His early adulthood was a story of  never being able to settle as he went in and out of jobs and school programs. As the subtitle points out this is also the story of the Power of Family and Josh’s family–parents, siblings, and wife–always supported him through Tourette’s Syndrome, schooling, life, struggles with infertility, and the various types of physical training which he attempted in order to control his tics. He is a large man who works his way up to a 590-pound dead lift (I am not sure what that is, but it sounds incredibly impressive), but from reading his memoir his true strength isn’t physical, rather it is his strength of character and strength as a human being that shines through.

Try The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family if you like memoirs about overcoming adversity. Other books in our library about living with Tourette’s Syndrome include: Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had, by Brad Cohen with Lisa Wysocky or Against Medical Advice: a True Story, by James Patterson and Hal Friedman.

Don’t assume this is  a dark book, because Hanagarne is able to bring humor even to the description of library patrons throwing up in trash cans or his classmates jeering at him for his Tourette’s tics. And best of all for a librarian is the paean to public libraries: “I had faith in the library long before he walked in and told me what I already knew: A library is a miracle.”

Check the WRL catalog for The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.

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ChristmasMouse1“The kettle began to sing, promising comfort.”

Sometimes only cosy* will do. On occasion I feel like action and excitement from my literature, and I am willing to put up with violence and despair to get it, but sometimes life requires a more moderate gait. When you need a gentle tome, then Miss Read will deliver.

I am new to Miss Read, despite her first book being published in 1955. I was creating a “Curl Up With a Cozy Tale” display at the library and felt drawn to The Christmas Mouse. Being slightly obsessive, I have branched out into her other titles in myriad formats; as ebooks and as audiobooks on CD. Her basic postulation seems to be that nothing in life is so bad that the sadness can’t be lessened by time, a cup of tea and the warmth of family and friends, with special emphasis on the cups of tea.

For my commute, I grabbed the first CD that was checked in and plunged into the middle of her Thrush Green series. I discovered that there are a lot of characters, like when my Great Aunty Judith tells me long and involved stories about the internal workings and external marriage problems of distant cousins, and I am expected to keep them all straight. After negotiating a tricky intersection I’d hear something such as, “Betty, Maggie and Dotty all sat down at Betty’s scrubbed kitchen table for a nice cup of tea. Outside the birds hopped among the spring flowers and chirped cheerfully. ‘Tell me all about it,’ said Betty.” I would suddenly realize that I had no idea of the identities of Betty, Maggie and Dotty, but for the enjoyment of the story it doesn’t matter because it is like meeting real people; I am introduced to them as they are now, and then slowly learn about their pasts and how they interconnect to other people we know in common.

The Christmas Mouse tells the story of Mrs. Berry who lives with her widowed daughter and two small grandchildren. Despite the tragedy of the daughter’s young widowhood, the book gently and with quiet wit paints a portrait of a close and stable family. On Christmas Eve, Mrs. Berry must face her fears–of mice and other stray creatures. The line drawings by J.S. Goodall add to the warmth. The little boy in the frontispiece exudes contentment, sitting in an overlarge armchair, wrapped up in a voluminous coat and slippers, and eating a warm bowl of bread and milk.

Try The Christmas Mouse if you are in the mood for cosy. Try it if you are tired of the commercial fuss in the lead up to Christmas, as The Christmas Mouse’s characters don’t have much material stuff, but still make Christmas a warm, loving family affair. And just in case you think this sort of book isn’t intellectually stimulating, I learned a new word, which doesn’t happen frequently in my fiction endeavors: wayzgoose, which is a printers’ outing. Literary quotes at the beginning of each chapter, from Robert Burns to William Wordsworth add to the appeal. 

* And this is definitely cosy and not cozy because this is a Very British Book.

Check the WRL catalog for The Christmas Mouse.

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I was listening to Unbroken : a World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption in my car for my book club, and like many people I was shocked and horrified on many occasions.  I knew I needed to listen to The Secret Garden next to regain my equilibrium, even though it is a book that I have read at least six times.  I listened to the audiobook on CD.  The reader, Flo Gibson, wasn’t who I would have picked as she has an American accent and a kind of scratchy voice but I soon settled into the old story like sliding down into a warm bubble bath.  I had previously come to the conclusion that many of the children’s books that I enjoy reading over and over are “cozy,” so I was surprised to discover when I started working in this library that “cozy mystery” is an official designation.  It makes sense, as sometimes we all need a cozy and comforting read.

In The Secret Garden Mary Lennox is a neglected and spoiled child  who has spent her entire ten years being over-indulged by Indian servants.  After her parents die in an epidemic she is sent to another dysfunctional household, the home of her uncle at Misselthwaite Manor on the Yorkshire Moors.  There she meets the sturdy Martha and Dickon, representatives of a family of fourteen.  She makes friends with an elderly and crabby gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, through her interest in a friendly robin.  There are also also mysterious noises and howlings down the corridors of the huge house.  And of course, she discovers a hidden and secret garden.

In this story, the Yorkshire Moors themselves, as well as the Secret Garden, are characters just as much as the people.  As the season changes from winter to spring and on into summer, Mary changes, the garden and the Moors change, and so too does everyone at Misselthwaite Manor.

This book was first published in 1911 and what I find intriguing 100 years later is the psychology of Mary and other characters.  Despite Dickon and Martha’s material poverty they are well loved and looked after and it shows in their steady, kind ways.  Mary, on the other hand, starts the book emotionally impoverished but gains a purpose and learns to love and live under the influence of attention.  The book is also full of gentle humor, especially in the character of Ben Weatherstaff.

One aspect of The Secret Garden that I missed as a child and can see as an adult is the Christian symbolism, for example, when they recite the Doxology while sitting in a circle with a fox and a lamb.  Other aspects are less overtly Christian as when  the children call the life force that helps them to heal “Magic.”  The Magic makes the Moors and garden change for spring, and when the children and other characters allow it, the Magic also changes them. Towards the end one previously stunted, but blossoming character announces,  “Being alive is the Magic!”

When I was talking about cozy children’s books, a colleague at the library recommended an out-of-print book, The Golden Name Day by Jennie D. Lindquist.  It captures the joy of being a child, that many adults are yearning to regain.  “Oh, anything can happen in this world, just anything. That’s why life is so exciting,” says Nancy towards the end of that book.  Other out-of-print (and sometimes obscure) books in this category that I love include: World’s End series by Monica Dickens, Green Smoke by Rosemary Manning, The Blow and Grow Year by Margaret Potter and Longtime Passing by Hesba Brinsmead.

For those who have read The Secret Garden before, perhaps years ago as a child, I highly recommend a second look through the eyes of an adult.  For those who have never tried it, it is a deeply hopeful story about redemption through the natural world and redemption through love.

Check the WRL catalog for The Secret Garden in book form.

Check the WRL catalog for The Secret Garden on audiobook CD.

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SilverThe book from my childhood that I would most like to see reprinted is The Golden Name Day, published in 1955 by Jennie Lindquist. Lindquist was a librarian and an editor of Horn Book, and she wrote this charming, quintessential little girl’s book by drawing on stories from her Swedish immigrant parents. Nine-year-old Nancy, whose mother is in hospital, spends a summer in the country with the Bensons, Swedish immigrants to New England. Each of the girls she befriends–Sigrid, Elsa, and Helga–celebrate not only a birthday but a “name day” as laid out in a calendar of names and dates in the Swedish Almanac. But as much as the little girls enjoy these special celebrations, there’s no “Nancy” in the almanac. Threaded through their season of picnics, animals, flower crowns, and May baskets is the story of how Nancy’s friends provide her with a name day of her own.

Sadly, our library doesn’t own The Golden Name Day, but we do own its sequel, which is even more fitting for this time of year, as it takes Nancy and her friends through the autumn, Advent, and the “Long Swedish Christmas.” In The Little Silver House, an abandoned, boarded-up house captures the girls’ imaginations, especially when the portrait of an old-fashioned ten-year-old girl is discovered in its attic. With this mystery in the background, it’s the celebrations of occasions great and small that give the book its charm. Gift-giving is the theme of the season, and the girls’ “random acts of kindness” include planting bulbs along the roadside for “traveler’s joy” and giving up some of their most treasured possessions for a special care package. Lonely newcomer Ben and others are brought into the circle of the Bensons’ warm hospitality and good food. Oh, how I wanted to be Swedish! My generic American family seemed so dull by comparison—no special traditions and not a chance that my mother was going to let me put lighted candles in a wreath on my head for St. Lucia’s day. The holidays continue with hand-wrapped karameller given to visitors, the Long Christmas Dance, Dipping Day, and “Second Christmas,” which made me wonder whether the Swedes are related at all to the hobbits.

Finding a book like this on the library shelves is as close as we come to time travel. Nancy’s yellow rose wallpaper! The horses, Whoa-Emma and Karl the Twelfth! For a nanosecond, I was nine years old again. Illustrated with the feathery pencil drawings of Garth Williams, so familiar from his work on the Little House series, these warm-hearted books will appeal to the same girls who enjoyed the Christmases of Laura and Mary Ingalls, whether those girls are nine years old or, ahem, somewhat older.

God Jul.

Check the WRL catalog for The Little Silver House.

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I love my job and one great aspect is exposure to all sorts of literature and encouragement to read things I don’t normally read. Romance is a genre I haven’t tried since I read Sloppy Sloshers  (as my Grandmother called her Regency Romances from authors like Georgette Heyer) as a teenager. I selected The Shunning by the complex method of walking along the Books on CD shelf and looking on the spine for a little red heart indicating romance.

Katie Lapp is 22 years old, which is old to be unmarried in her small Amish community. She is soon to be married to widower Bishop John, who has five small children from his first wife. Things already sound challenging, but Katie looks forward to becoming stepmother to five sweet children. What makes things difficult is that Katie has always been a rebel by Amish standards. She likes to sing songs that aren’t in the official Hymn book and has even hidden a forbidden guitar that belonged to her first love Daniel, who drowned on his nineteenth birthday. A shocking event on her wedding days leads Katie to be shunned by the Amish Community. No one is allowed to communicate with her in any way or they risk being shunned as well. Some of the saddest scenes are when Katie sits down to eat her dinner in her family kitchen, but at a separate table. Even her sweet and previously loving mother won’t talk to her.

For the Amish the event of Shunning is meant to be so horrible that the shunned person will fall back into line and do what the community requests. Katie finds the experience miserable but will she confess and repent? A revealed family secret, plus a growing feeling that she might not belong with the Amish leads Katie to consider the huge and desperate step of leaving the community.

The mystery in The Shunning was a bit predictable since I guessed two important secrets early in the book. The story moves at a moderate pace, which gives plenty of time to really care about the characters and their fates. Every character is nuanced. Bishop John is physically attracted to Katie, which is slightly creepy given their difference in age, but he is shown as a kind man who loves his children and will be a kind and loyal husband. Even the children are fully drawn characters. Although I selected The Shunning by the Romance sticker, I felt that the romantic elements aren’t extremely significant. The Amish are portrayed sympathetically and presumably realistically as the author Beverly Lewis grew up near Amish communities in Pennsylvania. I found the closeness of the families appealing, but was shocked by the harshness of their shunning.

The book was made into a movie in 2011. Like many adaptations, it misses the subtlety and depth of the book, but it was great to see what the Amish houses and community looked like – not quite what I pictured.  It has two sequels, The Confession and The Reckoning  which are currently on my bedside table waiting to tell me what happens to Katie and her family.

I recommend The Shunning if you are in the mood for a slower read with a glimpse into a contemporary and nearby, but exotic lifestyle. Try reading it  on a hot day when you need cooling off, as most the action occurs in a chilly Pennsylvania winter.

Check the WRL catalog for The Shunning.


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Today’s post is from Youth Services Director Noreen Bernstein.

            In this time of werewolves, vampires, zombies, and dystopian worlds, it is refreshing to find a teen novel about real people and a real time. Allie’s story starts in 1939 when she is living with her mother in Tennessee. Her mother is suffering from brain cancer and Allie is coping as best she can. Her neighbor Sam tries to help but Allie is not sure that she wants his assistance. Sam has a crush on Allie but she is too wrapped up in caring for her mother to care. And on one of the days she does spend time with Sam, her mother dies, leaving Allie alone and thinking that if she had been there she could have saved her mother.

            Allie is adopted by Miss Beatrice in Maine. After a brief transition period, the book moves to 1943. While Allie has adapted somewhat to her new life, she still holds onto her mother, her mother’s fervent belief in atheism, and her need to keep her emotions carefully hidden. She does find friends at school, and becomes somewhat close to Miss Beatrice’s older daughter. And who returns to her life? Sam, who is visiting a relative living next door to Miss Beatrice. A new relationship begins between Allie and Sam.

            The book is set against the background of World War II and includes all the emotions of teens growing up and finding their place in the world. The developing relationship between Allie and Sam, while a little predictable, rings true as does Allie’s search for the meaning of life and for a way to hold on to her late mother while  learning to accept the love of Miss Beatrice and her new friends.

            Interrupted is a first novel by Rachel Coker who is 16 years old and a longtime user of Williamsburg Regional Library. As a children’s librarian at WRL for many years, it is amazing to read a book written by a young lady we’ve known as a child. Seeing a library user grow up and produce a book that has been well reviewed and is well worth reading is the perfect gift for those of us at Williamsburg Regional Library.

            Interrupted is a good read for younger teens as well as adults.  The characters, setting, and emotions are real and many teens will identify with Allie, Sam, and the other characters.

Check the WRL catalog for Interrupted: Life Beyond Words.


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This gently paced book has a sweet story about someone changing her life around after overhearing a conversation in the ladies’ room.

Trudy’s Great-aunt Gert has passed away.  Trudy remembers spending pleasant summers with her cousins, Marty and Betsy, at her aunt’s house.  In more recent times, she recalls a few obligatory visits to the house now stuffed with knick knacks and a critical old woman.

Nature calls during Gert’s funeral.  While in one of the bathroom stalls, Trudy overhears Marty and Betsy talking about how Trudy is such a good, dependable person, “bless her heart,” — and how gullible she is in believing all is as it appears on the surface with her own family.  Trudy is shocked by the revelations and the fact that her cousins have done nothing to help her see the truth.

After the reading of the will, Trudy realizes it’s time for a change.

One of my favorite parts of the novel was when Trudy tells her new neighbor Billy Lee that she’s done with being nice.  “I’d rather have honest than nice,” she says.  And then she follows through without being mean.

I kept turning pages to see what would happen next — Trudy receives some good news, exacts some righteous revenge, makes a good friend, and finds a purpose in life.  The book will keep you entertained for a pleasant afternoon.

Check the WRL catalog for The Ladies’ Room


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Laura Hillenbrand’s new book Unbroken is a catalog of human achievement and suffering.  It is hard, almost impossible, to imagine one person undergoing so many trials and emerging from them with even the remotest possibility of recovery.  Yet Hillenbrand’s central character, Louis Zamperini, rises phoenix-like from the worst that one man can do to another to find a measure of peace.

Hillenbrand is famous for Seabiscuit, the bazillion-selling story of an underdog horse who became a champion thoroughbred.  Set in the depths of Depression-era America, it captured both the excitement and cultural impact of horse-racing, and the qualities of resilience that enabled the human and equine team to reach astonishing heights.  Unbroken focuses on the same time period – the 1920s through the 1940s – and deals with the same setting – sports – but from there the two stories diverge completely.

Louis Zamperini was a no-good kid who fought and stole his way through his hometown of Torrance, California, and was probably headed for prison.  His older brother managed to channel Louis’ energies into running, and the outlet proved spectacularly successful.  Within a short time, Louis was setting records in NCAA track events, and got an invitation to try out for the 1936 Olympics in an event he’d only competed in four times.  His stunning win sent him to Berlin, and an eventual meeting with Adolf Hitler.

When World War II started, Louis joined the Army Air Corps, and was assigned to the B-24 Liberator, a notoriously dangerous heavy bomber which nonetheless served in every theater of the war.  After a number of successful missions, Louis’ plane crashed at sea.  He and two other men survived, spending the next 47 days adrift in an inflatable raft, battling sharks, thirst, starvation, and wounds.  They were even machine-gunned by a Japanese seaplane, which riddled the raft but miraculously didn’t touch any of the men.  The third man died just before the raft landed on a Japanese-occupied island.

It was there that Louis’ life went from torment to living hell.  After a short period on the island, he was shipped to the Japanese mainland and held in a secret concentration camp without access to even the nominal protection that the International Red Cross afforded prisoners.  He was assaulted by civilians, and beaten, starved, and tortured by Japanese guards who would go on to be listed as war criminals.  But he also encountered the rare guards who took chances to give prisoners some tiny measure of hope.  For more than two years, he willed himself to live, and when Japan surrendered, he was finally free.  That is, his body was free.

Louis suffered from what is now recognized as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, with its attendant symptoms: alcoholism, bursts of rage, alienation from loved ones, and an inability to cope with the routines of daily life.  Heralded as a hero, Louis’ public face was a mask that hid a man still suffering the torments of the war.  An encounter with evangelist Billy Graham convinced him to seek redemption and salvation, and in the years since, he’s  exemplified those values, going so far as to meet with his torturers and captors and forgiving them.

As powerful as the book is, it also has its moments of humor – Louis gets caught trying to steal the Nazi flag from the Reich Chancellery, stockpiles homemade liquor, and joins other prisoners of war in playing clever but risky tricks on their captors.  As much as those episodes help lighten the narrative, though, it is difficult not to become angry towards the Japanese whose treatment of the prisoners was nothing short of barbaric.  Reaching the moment when Louis, and many of his fellow Americans, were able to achieve peace by forgiving the Japanese gave me a tiny taste of the redemption Louis achieved.

Hillenbrand concentrates on Louis’ story, although he survived his raft trip with another man who also lived as a prisoner until the end of the war.  Other men were brutalized, even murdered, in the camps.  But Louis’ indomitable will is memorable and inspirational.  It truly was unbroken.

Check the WRL Catalog for Unbroken


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For decades R. Crumb has been a major presence in the world of comics, but there’s a good chance you’ve never read his material. Unless you’ve caught his frequent contributions to The New Yorker, you may have never encountered Crumb, even if you’re an avid fan of comics and graphic novels. This is because R. Crumb is very, very alternative. Mainstream publications are not well-suited to Crumb’s radical ideas, stories, and humor — and mainstream publications are definitely not the place for Crumb’s depictions of sex and sexuality.

So what happens when a subversive underground comics artist interprets one of the most venerated religious texts in the history of the world? As one would expect, the result is provocative and edgy and intense. But it is also reverent and tasteful, both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Put it this way: I will be giving a copy to my church-going mother for Christmas. (Mom, if you’re reading this, please act surprised on Christmas morning.)

To be sure, Crumb’s interpretation will not please everybody. His depictions of women will offend some readers: these are some very curvy ancient Hebrew women, with busts and hips drawn in their full glory, oftentimes naked. Naked men show up, too — but this is in keeping with the sacred text, after all. There are some raunchy scenes in the Book of Genesis, even when rendered in the traditional King James language. (It is a slightly-modified version of the King James text that Crumb uses throughout his book.)

Avoid this if you do not want to see graphic depictions of sex and violence; that said, I think a lot of readers will enjoy the book. If you’ve never read Genesis, you’re missing out on some of the most colorful stories in the Bible– the creation of the world, the Eden story with Adam and Eve and the snake, the flood with Noah and his ark, the razing of Sodom and Gomorrah. If you’re familiar with Genesis, you’ll find that Crumb’s artwork brings a fresh new interpretation. Even the family tree bits (somebody begot somebody else begot somebody else begot somebody else, etc.) are kind of neat, because Crumb draws interesting little pictures along the way, while the juicy bits — the betrayals, the murders, the political intrigues, the famines — are rendered with Crumb’s enthralling artistic images.

Check the WRL catalog for The Book of Genesis

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flickerDo you want your picture taken? Grab a digital camera and you’ll have it in an instant. But just a mere one hundred years ago, a photograph was a treasured object. Having your picture taken meant a trip to the photographer’s studio and spending considerable money. Today’s story is about a portrait photographer, his studio and his assistant in Winona, Minnesota in 1907.

The Flickering Light tells the story of Jessie Ann Gaebele, a 15-year old girl who has received a camera as a gift. Photography has captured her interest and she is keen to learn more. Jessie is also a strong-willed girl from a family with little money. So she and a friend apply for a job with Mr. Frederick John Bauer, portrait photographer.

Mr. Bauer, known as FJ, has operated a successful studio for many years. His wife, also named Jessie, is familiar with the photography business so that FJ would like her to help in the studio. But she is busy with their three children and she also fears the chemicals used in developing. In fact, the chemicals have caused a problem: FJ has acquired mercury poisoning, common in his business. On occasion the poison flares up and he is bed-ridden, unable to work. This is the reason that he is in need of an assistant.

Jessie and her friend are hired and trained to run the studio. Jessie loves every minute of the training and work. But another “love” enters the studio: FJ has become smitten with Jessie, and she is with him to some degree. Although Jessie is young, she see the dangers that this presents, especially when they are working alone in the studio.

I don’t want to give away the story, but do know that the book is a light, clean read. It’s a good story and even better when one realizes that it is a fictionalized account of the life of the author’s grandmother. What I found most interesting was the story of this young woman, 100 years ago, and her ability to find a profession and work it it although society frowned upon such activity for her sex. I also enjoyed hearing about photography and the style of it 100 years ago. There are great pictures in the book, all taken by Jessie herself.

This is the first book in the new Portrait of a Woman series. Jane Kirkpatrick has written many other popular books. We have 10 of her other books and we will undoubtedly get other books in this series as they come out.

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Let’s see what I can remember from Sunday school of Jesus’ disciples: There was John, and Mark, and Luke, and… And heck, that other guy, um….

Biff! That was his name! Biff!

Christopher Moore has written a completely irreverent book. Now it is true that all of Christopher Moore’s books are completely irreverent, but I do advise you to stay away from this one if you don’t want to read about irreverence as applied to the life of Jesus.

If you’d be interested in a snarky pseudo-gospel, however, come listen to what Biff has to say. Biff is Jesus’s dorky sidekick. It is through Biff’s wisecracking perspective that we get a fresh look at the events of the life and death of Jesus. The general gist is the same as what you’d find in a Christian bible, but the details are presented in ways you probably hadn’t quite imagined: There are a lot more dumb jokes, and pretty girls, and swear words.

This definitely isn’t a book for everyone. It will strike some as annoying (I think all the one-liners are great, but I then think a pie in the face is the height of humor), and others will find it sacrilegious. For what it’s worth, I don’t consider Lamb to be a mockery of the Christian religion. It is light-hearted and wacky, and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is not mean-spirited. Readers willing to give it a try may find themselves enjoying a lot of laughs.

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Red Letter Christians coverThis post reflects only my views, not those of the library or of Mr. Campolo

When I was growing up, my family was active in the Catholic Church. Post-Vatican II, we had the whole liberal nine yards – folksinging Masses, youth groups, mission programs, political and civil rights activism. My family was made up of Christians who practiced Catholicism; my theological understanding was based on a vision of Matthew 25:40 (‘whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me’). At some point during my teens, though, the term ‘Christian’ seemed to mutate into a different vision articulated by pasty-faced white Southern men who demonized everyone who wasn’t a pasty-faced white Southern men – or who didn’t give money to their churches and vote Republican. The idea that the faithful would be snatched up and everyone else left to fight in the ruins seemed to become the dominant theology of public life and policy. Mainstream churches seemed to back away from their social justice ministries and present inarticulate speakers to apologize for their work (Keep in mind I was in my teens, and tended to see everything as black and white). Put the word ‘evangelical’ in front of anything, and I immediately distrusted it.

Fast forward too many years. I turn on The Colbert Report, and there’s a guy presenting himself as an ‘evangelical’ plumping his book. I felt sorry for the guy, having seen Colbert subtly eviscerate many self-important hypocrites. Imagine my surprise when the guy, whose name is Tony Campolo, responded eloquently and simply to Colbert’s sallies, turning every assumption about evangelical Christians on its head. ‘Don’t hate the gays, because God loves them. Remember that to be pro-life you also have to support the living – even those that are supposed to be your enemies. The physical world around you matters to God.’ I wrote down the title of his book and ordered it as soon as possible.

In a series of thoughtful essays, Campolo lays out what it means to be a Red Letter Christian – one who looks first to the teachings of Jesus for guidance in living a meaningful spiritual life. Then he removes the electoral considerations, saying emphatically that God does not belong to any political party or support one side or the other on any issue. Sections on global, social, economic, and government dig into the complex issues that face us as Americans, as Christians, and as humans. Over and over, Campolo calls for equal treatment – for the poor, for the despised, for the ignored. He provides only one simple solution, calling on people to get past their selfishness and identity politics and put their spirituality into practice. Turns out that’s not so simple.

Although the individual sections are short, this is not a fast read. Campolo sums up difficult issues by highlighting the discrepancy between what the Bible tells us is good and what the world tells us is good. I don’t agree with every premise Campolo accepts, or believe every source he cites. What brings me up short as a reader is the need to contemplate how cynicism, high expectations, and low effort shortchange this country and faith of all kinds. Then I have to figure out what to do – or not do – with those thoughts.

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Here, read the first sentence and see if you’re hooked:

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

With A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving managed to write the rarest of books, a Christian novel that’s not the least bit inspirational. Within the story there is ample evidence of God’s influence in the characters’ lives, but at no point does anyone proselytize: Irving never suggests, even indirectly, that the reader adopt Christianity. And yet this is a very religious book in the sense that God plays a large role—and the main character himself is a Christ figure.

Heavy issues of religion, faith, and spirituality abound in Owen Meany—but in case one weighty topic per book isn’t enough for you, you’ll also get a healthy dose of politics. The story starts simply enough, in small-town 1950s New England, but by the latter half of the book, America is embroiled in Vietnam. Thoughts of war, duty, and personal responsibility occupy the the mind of the narrator, an American who moved to Canada duing the Vietnam War (though not, significantly, as a draft dodger).

With all these meaty issues, Owen Meany is, literally, thought-provoking. For days after I finished it I found myself, er, provoked by thoughts. I would be lying in bed, or taking a shower, or trying to concentrate on a different book, but I kept coming back to Owen Meany. “Wait!” I yelled at my cat as I was feeding her. “Did John Irving mean…?”

Most books with heavy themes are—how shall I say this delicately?—are not over-focused on plot. The Brothers Karamazov, my favorite novel ever, raises every philosophical question known to humankind, but it’s not what you’d call a fast read. Owen Meany, now—the story grabbed me from the get-go and didn’t let go till the very last page, at which point I put the book down and bawled my eyes out. What can I say? The characters grow on you.

Caveat reader: Owen Meany contains strong language and violence (I’m telling you, this is just not typical Christian fiction) and a peculiar strain of anti-Catholicism from one of the characters; I didn’t find the book to be anti-Catholic on the whole, but some readers may be upset by the prejudices of the guy who is, otherwise, a swell protagonist. And most importantly: If you react like I did, you’re looking forward to a protracted bout of histronics when you hit that last page.

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madeleine.jpgMadeleine L’Engle died yesterday at the age of 89.

How can I even begin to describe the impact that L’Engle had on readers? Or on me?

She wrote some of everything: novels, nonfiction, poems, plays. She wrote for everyone:
young children, tweeners, young adults, adults. She wrote in a variety of genres: autobiography, coming-of-age, contemporary fiction, science fiction, Christian fiction. All told, she published more than 60 titles, beginning with The Small Rain in 1945.

In 1962, dissatisfied with the dearth of female protagonists in science fiction , L’Engle set about changing the stereotype with Meg Murray, a prickly teen girl whose father had mysteriously disappeared. With her peculiar little brother Charles Wallace and her neighbor Calvin, Meg embarked on a journey to rescue her father. But Meg’s father was nowhere on earth, and to travel there, she had to apply some unusual perspectives to the rules of time and space; hence the title for the book, A Wrinkle in Time.

Twenty-six different publishers rejected A Wrinkle in Time. They have been kicking themselves nonstop for the past 45 years. It was to become L’Engle’s signature title, a book that has maintained a strong following of readers for nearly half a century.

What made L’Engle’s writing so very good? Was it her characters? Her stories? Her language, her themes, her settings?

All of the above, really, which is why she has endured: L’Engle was a master of all of those different parts of a story that work in harmony to drawn in readers. She wrote something for everyone.

Her style was accessible and understandable without being unintelligent. Her characters were believable and compelling and altogether human (except for the characters who weren’t human, of course). Her settings were vibrant and vivid, no matter where the action took place: on the stages of New York, in the pre-diluvian Middle East, in the middle of a mitochondrion, even in another dimension.

And her themes! Fantastic, supernatural, or perfectly ordinary—it doesn’t matter, L’Engle always made them profound and personal. When I first discovered L’Engle, my eight-year-old mind was blown away by her treatment of concepts such as familial love, sacrifice, and authority. And when I started reading her adult works in my twenties, I was deeply moved by her grace in discussing romantic love, fidelity, religious faith, and self-discipline.

If you have never had the pleasure of reading a L’Engle book, you have a great many places to start. Leave a comment here and I’ll get back to you with the best one for your mood and tastes. Or plunge right in with A Wrinkle in Time.

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Check the WRL catalog for books by Madeleine L’Engle

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