Catching up

Life and Other Near-Death Experiences: A Review

Life and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagán

Book Score: 1

A couple years ago, I decided I wasn’t reading enough women writers. So for about a year, I read nothing but women writers. It was a good experience. I’ve backed off a bit, but I still read a lot of women. So should you.

A few other things to set up this review: I get most of my books from Amazon, I like discovering new writers, and I’m cheap. And if you didn’t know before, Amazon does a crappy job of separating real literary fiction from pulp fiction. This isn’t all bad news. It’s how I ended up finding Liane Moriarty. Not all fiction that sometimes gets labeled as Chick Lit is crap. But some of it…ugh.

All that to say that sometimes I find myself accidentally reading the bad kind of Chick Lit. The Lifetime movie kind of Chick Lit. And Life and Other Near-Death Experiences is one such book.

Libby Miller finds out she has a rare form of cancer. Then her husband of eighteen years comes out as gay. On the same day. FML. Seriously, Pagan could have just called the book that and it would have been a better title.

Libby proceeds to wrestle with mommy issues (her mother died of cancer when Libby was a child) and relationship issues as she decides whether to seek treatment or just let nature take its course. She runs away. A romance ensues. But she comes out of the experience a better person. Of course.

This probably isn’t fair, since I’m clearly not the target audience, but I found myself hoping Libby would just die already at several points along the way. The writing is fine as far as it goes, but the story is beyond manipulative. It’s pure pulp. Just don’t. You know, unless pulp is your thing. Then by all means, enjoy!


In My Solitude

Some backstory: my friends (and now my blog readers) know that I struggle with depression. This summer, with all the rains we had here in Tampa Bay, was especially not good for me, so my doctor and I thought it might be time to tweak my meds. But instead of just upping my dose (since there are unpleasant side effects when the dose gets too high), we added something else on top of what I usually take. And it’s worked wonderfully for the depression. But it also wakes me up between two and four o’clock every morning. And not just “roll over and go back to sleep” wakes-me-up. Wide awake type wakes me up.

So I’ve been puttering around the house a lot in the middle of the night, trying to be productive, but trying to stay quiet too. I’ve also spent a lot of time just sitting. And I’ve learned a good bit about solitude this last month or so.

  1. I like it! Actually, that’s not quite right. I already knew I was the kind of person who liked and needed alone time. But what’s been surprising is that I go to bed looking forward to getting up at 3 AM. That I like it that much.
  2. You have to prepare for it. It doesn’t really matter what time I go to bed; I’m still waking up around the same time. And I still need to get a decent amount sleep. This means I have to go to bed earlier than I’m used to.  And when there’s a good ball game or movie or whatever, I do sometimes have to remind myself of #1.
  3. Dogs do not understand it. Seriously, I love my dogs. But they don’t understand that just because Dad is up at two in the morning, doesn’t mean it’s time to play and bark at the neighbors. So we’re still navigating how to handle my furry companions.
  4. The biggest distraction to well-used solitude has always been me. Even when the dogs settle down, and house is quiet, and I should be able to sit and just be, too often I can’t. I can’t shut off the internal monologue. But when I do — usually around four — it’s very rewarding sitting here in the library, with just me and my tinnitus. It is peace.

So I encourage you, if you can, to disconnect and try to find solitude once in a while. It is rejuvenating. Even if the dogs are still annoying.

Photo by susieq3c  licensed under

Some Thoughts from a Weary Worship Warrior

I’ve been reading a lot of posts lately – some well-intentioned, some less so  – that take shots at contemporary worship. As someone who loves contemporary worship, the critiques hit close to home. But I do try to keep an open mind and an open heart. I feel like we can learn far more from our critics than we can from our cheerleaders. And I do think we can do better. We can write deeper songs. We can look for better ways to integrate the music into the service so “worship” doesn’t equal “singing.” Because that’s just not true; it’s all worship. We can do better with our theology, and we can certainly do a better job embracing things that are our shared history.

So please know that we’re listening, and growing. I just hope that the listening is a two-way street. Because I also have some questions:

You say contemporary worship is just emotionalism.

Look, I really don’t deny that emotion is a major part of it. It’s not all of it. It might not be most of it. But it is a large share, I’ll agree, at least on the music side. I’m just not sure why that’s a bad thing. We are emotional beings. We say this worship thing is about a relationship with our Creator. Don’t you express emotions in all your other relationships? Why would this one – this most important one between a man or woman and God — be any different?

You say contemporary worship is not participatory.

You say people are just watching the band and singers perform. I’ve noticed it too some days, on some songs. Other days, I can see them singing. Some people even clap along, though not loud enough for anyone beyond a seat or two away to hear it. But then, you’ve probably noticed the same thing in your traditional service. I know, because I’ve sat in on quite a few of them doing the tech. Lots of mumbling. And I wanted to sing the tenor or bass harmony, but everybody else I could hear was singing the melody. I was disappointed. So maybe the issue isn’t really with contemporary worship? Maybe it’s with people in general needing some critical mass around them before they feel comfortable letting go? Maybe it’s because we’ve gutted music from schools? Maybe it’s because our culture has divorced itself from almost every other musical public expression, so people just don’t feel comfortable singing anymore? Just some thoughts. I’d love to kick this one around some more with you without blaming it one the music style.

You say contemporary worship is exclusionary.

I have to say, I don’t get this one. At all. Mostly because – and I don’t know how to say this gently – we were the ones made to feel unwelcome. We were “allowed” to start a new thing, but there would no changes to the old thing. And some of you made it quite clear that you weren’t happy that the new thing existed at all.

So is there a chip on the collective shoulders of the people who helped start these contemporary services? If I’m totally honest: probably! But it’s not a chip we put there. And if you want to help us unload that chip, maybe some grace would go further than another lecture about what we’re doing wrong?

(cover photo by Photo by susieq3c  licensed under

Books I Read During Baseball Season III: Non-Fiction

I didn’t do very much non-fiction reading this summer, so we can fit them all into one post. It’s all religious (since that’s the way my non-fiction taste tends to run) and I won’t be scoring these (since I don’t think non-fiction lends itself to that sort of thing). Instead, I’ll try to give you feel for who I think might find this book helpful.

Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today by Adam Hamilton

This is a book that aims to be provocative. Hamilton digs into more than one sacred cow (biblical inerrancy, evolution, homosexuality) in a way that challenges preconceived notions while still staying grounded in the biblical text. It would make a great group study; in fact, there is a video and study guide companion for just that purpose. Read as a stand-alone book, Hamilton gets repetitive after a while, and you do wish he’d get to the point a little more quickly. Though honestly, that might have been more because I’d already spent the last ten years having these same arguments with myself, so there were no surprises. Your mileage may vary.

Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew Everything Learned How to Ask Questions by Rachel Held Evans

Ms. Held Evans freely admits she is too young to be writing a memoir. And she’s right. And yet she does a wonderful job of it. Raised in Dayton, Tennessee, home of the Scopes monkey trial, she makes evolution the central metaphor of the book. Specifically, that faith which does not evolve is not a faith that will last. She drops by some of the same sacred cows Hamilton does, as well as some different ones. She is far less lecture-y though. She explores and explains her evolving faith with stories that are both inspiring and amusing.

“Sometimes I think that John the Revelator might have been a crazy old man whose creative writing assignment for Patmos Learning Annex accidentally made it into the Bible.”

That zinger is followed by a chapter where she wrestles with the loss of life following the Boxing Day tsunami, and what would be the eternal fate of those who had never heard the message of Jesus. This eventually lands her on the bathroom floor at 2 AM, looking for comfort in her Bible. She finds it, of all places, in the very words of John the Revelator, when he speaks of a great multitude from “every nation, tribe, people, and language” before the throne of God, and every tear being wiped from their eyes. And it occurs to her that perhaps the key word here is every. Not just every tears, but every nation. Every tribe.

“Funny how after twenty years of sophisticated Christian education and apologetics training, I put my last best hope in the prophetic ramblings of an apocalyptic preacher.”

If you’ve ever struggled with doubt, this book is for you. Which is to say, if you have a brain, this book is for you. Because as Ms. Held Evans says, “doubt is the mechanism by which faith evolves…a hot flame that keeps our faith alive and bubbling about, where certainty would only freeze it on the spot.”

There is a lot to like in Ms. Held Evan’s writing style, as well as a lot of substance. You should read this.

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz Weber

I wanted to love this book. A tattooed, cursing, recovering addict of a mainline preacher? Yes, please! Sadly, I only liked it. It felt more like a collection of sermons and anecdotes (sermanecdotes?) than one cohesive piece.

Not to say that there aren’t parts that shine. The Slaughter of Holy Innocents of Sandy Hook was brutally powerful in its reminder that Jesus was born into a world where Herod slayed (and still slays) children. She relates her bundle of neuroses in ever amusing and self-effacing ways. But it feels like this book could have been better with tighter editing.

Though one good thing about the way the book falls together is you can pick it up at any point and dive in, no matter how long ago it was you last put it down. So maybe a good nightstand book? Warning for the squeamish: just about all the curse words are here, even the big ones.

Catching up

Books I Read During Baseball Season: Part II

More catching up on books I read during baseball season, while I was busy blogging elsewhere but still reading. Part I is here. One more part after this, which will focus on non-fiction. A reminder about the Book Score system:

4: Great book. Re-Readable. Seriously, why haven’t you read this book yet so we can talk about it?
3: Good book. Not necessarily re-readable, but well worth the time and effort.
2: Fair book. You’ll never get the time back you spent reading this book. Then again, there are worst ways to waste a day than reading.
1: Ugh. Don’t. Just…don’t. I read this book so you won’t have to. Don’t make my sacrifice be in vain.

And away we go!

Dark Places & Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Book Score: 2

I bought a Kindle edition that had all three Gillian Flynn novels when Gone Girl was in the theaters. I read Gone Girl right away and loved it. Dark Places and Sharp Objects, not so much.

In Sharp Objects, Camille Preaker — a reporter with a history of self-injury — returns to her hometown to cover a story on two dead girls. In the process, the confronts old demons from her past. In Dark Places, Libby Day is the lone survivor of the massacre of her family, a crime for which her 15 year-old brother was convicted and then-child Libby was the star witness. The story follows her as she uncovers what really happened that dark day.

Sharp Objects was okay and a solid 2, if a bit telegraphed, but Dark Places was contrived and the ending too convenient. I would have given it a 1, if not for the writing chops of Flynn, which are clearly here. They’re just buried under a dopey story.

The Secret Place by Tana French

Book Score: 4

I feel like Tana French and I are old friends. I’ve been reading her books since her debut In the Woods, and I’ve yet to be disappointed. The Secret Place is particularly strong. It follows Detective Stephen Moran (last seen in Faithful Place) as tries to work his way out of the dead end of Cold Cases and onto the Murder Squad by solving a gone-cold boarding school murder investigation with the irascible lead detective, Antoinette Conway.  The dialog sparkles and the story is tight. But where French excels is putting you into the shoes of the different characters and feeling what they feel, from teenage girls to middle-aged men.

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

Book Score: 3

Joan Castleman is the wife of acclaimed writer Joe Castleman. But on their way to collect the Helsinki Prize, the fictitious second fiddle to the Nobel, she decides she’s had enough. The story chronicles how she got to that point, and what happens next.

Wolitzer writes beautiful sentences. I can’t tell if she inspires me or makes me want to quite writing altogether. As for the story, it’s not great, and the “twist” isn’t really a twist, in that you guess it (and are supposed to) very early on. But the writing is just amazing. Seriously, why aren’t reading more Meg Wolitzer?

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Book Score: 3

Rosemary is the 22 year-old twin sister…of a chimpanzee. Raised together from birth by her scientist father as an experiment, she is devastated when her “sister,” Fern, disappears while Rosemary is still a child. Then her brother disappears. The story utilizes flashbacks to help Rosemary piece back together the story of what “really” happened. More interesting than entertaining, the book takes a look at what it is to be human.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Book Score: 4

Set mostly before and during World War II in France and Germany, All the Light We Cannot See follows two parallel stories that eventually intersect. Marie-Laure is a young blind Parisian that the war chases with her father — a locksmith with a McGuffin — to San Malo on the Brittany coastgirl. Werner is a tech-obsessed German orphan whose ingenuity and intelligence frees him from a future in the mines — and leads him to the SS.

This is not an easy story, and there is no “happy ending.” It took me several stabs to even get into to it. Once I did, I was hooked. It is beautiful and compelling and heartbreaking. It won the Pulitzer for a reason.