A Look at Christian Faith in Mainstream Fiction

I’ve been a Christian almost as long as I’ve been alive. My dad was a pastor for many years, so I grew up in the church and have chosen to remain there. Despite my faith, I have little interest in consuming most contemporary Christian art. I’ve seen my share of Christian movies over the years, and I cringe at the memories. My Christian CDs have been put away for a long time now. I have little interest in reading Christian fiction. That’s not to say all Christian art is bad; it’s not. But sometimes it feels more didactic than beautiful. Even when I agree with the message, I don’t want to watch a movie or read a book that’s preaching to me. 

Thinking about these things made me want to reflect on the books I’ve read that deal with Christian faith, specifically novels. Some of my most beloved, 5-star books focus on faith. Instead of featuring protagonists that are just a cliche of what culture thinks when they hear the word “Christian,” these books have characters that feel the tension of the holy vs. the ordinary. Faith has shaped their lives, whether they wanted it to or not. There are no tidy endings. Today I want to talk about some of those books that handled faith so well and realistically. I’ll start with my favorite.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson 

Gilead is written in the form of a letter by the Reverend John Ames. Ames is nearing the end of his life and has chosen to write to his young son, telling him about his past and family. This book talks about slavery, death, loss, and parenthood in ways that are profound and moving. Reverend Ames offers his son wisdom about God and life that I find deeply meaningful. Robinson (a person of faith herself) depicts Ames’s faith in a way that feels so very real.  Whether you’re a believer or not, I think this book is a must-read. It’s simply gorgeous and one I cherish.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

This book is set on the fourteenth birthday of John Grimes. He lives in Harlem with his family and desperately yearns for the love of his father, Gabriel, a preacher. John feels pulled in two different directions: one toward God, and one toward the world. He’s also trying to figure out what it means to be black in a mostly white world. The tension John feels will be relatable to any believer, no matter your faith tradition. His longings and questions are universal and palpable thanks to Baldwin’s talent as a writer. This is the first book I read by him, and I knew immediately that I’d found a new favorite author. Baldwin is supremely gifted and his work here shines. 

The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir

Essie is a teen girl who’s pregnant. Her father is a pastor who preaches a fire and brimstone faith. To complicate matters even more, her family stars in a hit reality show that definitely didn’t script a pregnancy. Essie’s mother and the producers of the show scramble to figure out what to do. They decide to fabricate a love story between Essie and a local boy Essie chooses. As the novel progresses, we learn some secrets about Essie’s family and learn her new love interest has a secret of his own. This novel reveals how much damage people can do when they only care about what their faith looks like to an audience. Essie’s story got a lot darker than I thought it would, so this book isn’t for the faint of heart, but it does a good job of revealing the darker side of celebrity and religion.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett 

This novel is another one that involves a pregnancy. This time it’s 17-year-old Nadia who’s pregnant. The father is Luke, the pastor’s son. Nadia is grieving the suicide of her mother and Luke isn’t ready to be a dad. Bennett tells the story of what choices they make and how those choices haunt them and their families for years to come. The title refers to the church mothers, who help narrate the story. Bennett excels at showing how deeply entwined people can become in their church and how sometimes boundaries are erased due to a sense of belonging to a higher, heavenly family. 

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

Maggie is a loving wife, mother, and poet. She meets a fellow poet named James at a conference and they enter into a friendship that slowly morphs into something else. Maggie is a religious person who struggles with the moral choices in front of her. Quatro writes absolutely gorgeous prose that expertly captures the yearning and guilt Maggie feels. I read this book in one sitting because I was so captivated by not just Maggie’s story, but the way Quatro wrote it. While this book deals with the temptation of infidelity, any believer will be able to relate to Maggie as she’s drawn to something she knows will only end badly.


Other than Christian faith, the one thing that connects each of these novels is a sense of authenticity. One of the problems I often have with Christian art is that it seems superficial, as if God can’t handle hearing our doubts, longings, and questions. These books present a view of faith that is genuine and messy, and I appreciate that frankness.


What similar books should I read next? What are some of your favorite books about faith? 


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How to Find Your Next Book

Between my Goodreads TBR and the hundreds of unread books I own, you wouldn’t think I’d be looking for new books to read. You’d be wrong, however, because I can’t help myself. Since I work in libraries, I tell myself hunting for new books is research for my job. Sometimes it is, but most of the time I just want a new, shiny book to read. In today’s post, I’m sharing my favorite resources for finding books. You can never have too many (or so I tell myself).

ANY NEW BOOKS NEWSLETTER

If you want to know what books are coming out each week but don’t want to spend time browsing various websites or stores, the Any New Books newsletter is for you. Other than the convenience, my favorite thing about Any New Books is that you can subscribe only to the lists you’re interested in. I get weekly emails about biographies and memoirs, mysteries, general fiction, and religion because those are my favorite genres. Being able to customize what’s coming into your inbox is a smart feature and one I appreciate. 

NETGALLEY & EDELWEISS

If you’d like to read and review new books before they’re released, sign up for NetGalley and Edelweiss. These sites are geared toward professionals like librarians, book buyers, and reviewers, but even if you’re none of those things, it’s worth creating an account. You visit the site, see what books you’re interested in, and either download what’s automatically available or put in a request for access. Back when I had zero online presence, I had a NetGalley account and was still approved for a lot of titles, so it’s worth a try even if you think you won’t get access to anything. The emails NetGalley sends out previewing new titles are helpful too. 

BOOK SUBSCRIPTIONS

Like most people, I enjoy getting stuff in the mail, especially when it’s books from Page 1 Books or Book of the Month. I mentioned both of these services in my gift guide for book people, but they’re worth a second look. They’re both subscriptions, but different kinds. (This isn’t an ad; I genuinely love these services.)

With Page 1 Books, you fill out a form indicating what you like to read, and they send you a handpicked book each month. The book comes beautifully wrapped and includes some bookish goodies. If you’re concerned about getting a book you already own or don’t like, just let Page 1 know, and they’ll send you a replacement and let you keep the other book. I love love love this subscription. Their prices start at $65 for a 3-month subscription.

Book of the Month allows readers to choose what books they receive. Each month there’s a selection of 5 books. These are hardcover new releases and can include fantasy, romance, thrillers, literary fiction, and much more. A monthly membership costs $14.99, and you can add on up to two more books for $9.99 each. You also get access to BOTM’s past selections until they sell out. If there’s nothing that interests you in a certain month, your credits will roll over to the next one. 

WHAT SHOULD I READ NEXT? PODCAST

I’ve been obsessed with podcasts lately. The first one I ever listened to is What Should I Read Next? With Anne Bogel, and it’s still a favorite. (Anne’s blog is lovely, too.) Each week on the podcast Anne interviews a guest. They’re asked about their reading life and list three books they love, one they don’t, and what they’re reading now. With that in mind, Anne suggests three books they might enjoy reading next. I’ve gotten a lot of good recommendations from this show. Occasionally there are guests whose reading taste is entirely opposite of mine, but I still enjoy listening. Hearing readers talk passionately about books is always enjoyable, whether I want to read those books or not.  


There are many resources out there for finding books (including your local librarians), but these are the ones that continually work for me. What about you? How do you find your books? 


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Books that Have Opened My Eyes

One of the best things about reading is that it opens your eyes to people, beliefs, and situations that are outside what’s familiar. I’ve lived a privileged, middle-class life, so it’s important that I learn from stories different from mine. Many books have made an impact on me, so today I’m highlighting a few of them that illuminated a specific topic.

Please note: Two books deal with rape and sexual assault, which I do address.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO THE EFFECTS OF POVERTY:
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx
by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

I knew about poverty before I read this book, of course. I knew poverty could hold people back, but I didn’t fully understand its ramifications until I read Random Family. This is a remarkable work of journalism by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc that follows a group of people living in the Bronx over several years of their lives. Their stories are full of addiction, drugs, sex, prison, broken relationships, and violence. It’s easy to say, “Just get an education. Just get a job. Just leave that situation.” But poverty often acts as a blockade. If you’re poor and might lose your housing, dealing drugs and making thousands of dollars might sound great. But dealing leads to more and more problems and the cycle keeps on going. This book showed me how easily poverty traps people and how difficult it is to transition to a better life.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO RACISM:
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness 
by Austin Channing Brown

One of the most striking things about this book is the author’s name. She reveals that her parents named her Austin so people would hear it and assume she was a white man. They knew this would make job searches easier and might allow her a foot in the door she might not have as a black woman. Reading that broke my heart. A child entering the world should be a time of joy; parents shouldn’t have to think about the future and prepare for eventual prejudice as they’re holding their newborn. This is a slim book, but it’s full of insights about race, and specifically speaks to the Church about what we can and should be doing better to advocate for and welcome people of color.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO THE EFFECTS OF TRAUMA: 
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

I read (and loved) Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist, so I knew she’d been raped as a 12-year-old. Hunger is the story of how that assault changed her life and her relationship with her body. With awe-inspiring vulnerability, Gay writes about how being overweight became a fortress to keep people away and how her family watched her spiral out of control and weren’t sure what to do. She talks about bad decisions she’s made, her relationship with food, and what she’s doing as an adult to manage her trauma. There are no easy answers or tidy endings here. This is a powerful memoir that shows just how much one event in a person’s life can completely change everything. Roxane Gay is one of the best writers alive today.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO THE WAR ON DRUGS:
Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari

In this book, Johann Hari presents a well-researched history of the war on drugs, revealing all the ways in which that war has caused additional damage and suffering. He includes powerful stories about Billie Holiday, drug cartels, and needle exchanges, among others. Hari weaves all of these threads into a convincing argument about the future and reform of the drug war. This is a gripping, thought-provoking book from start to finish.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO THE EFFECTS OF SOCIAL MEDIA:
American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Nancy Jo Sales

I work with kids every day, so I was curious about the role social media plays in their lives. I was unprepared for what I learned in this book.  Journalist Nancy Jo Sales interviews teen girls, so readers get firsthand knowledge of just how important social media can be to them. I was surprised that even when girls are getting bullied and have to deal with being oversexualized, they remain dedicated to their online worlds. My one complaint about this book is that most of the subjects Sales interviews are middle-class or higher, so there isn’t much information about how poorer kids interact with technology. I think that’s a big missing piece, but this book is still worth reading, especially for those of us who engage with kids on a regular basis. After I finished reading, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that Instagram and Snapchat didn’t exist while I was growing up.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO MISOGYNY AND RAPE CULTURE:
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

There are aspects of all these books that shocked me, but I don’t think any of the other books left me feeling quite as disgusted as Missoula. Jon Krakauer explores how little seriousness is sometimes given to rape and assault allegations, especially when the alleged perpetrators are people the community admire, like college football players. If I could, I’d make this book required reading for every person heading off to college. They need to know just how drastically rape and assault can change lives, whether justice is served or not.


What about you? What are the books that have opened your eyes?

A Gift Guide for Book People

As you might have noticed from the music, store Christmas tree displays, and crowded malls, the holidays are quickly approaching. I relish this time of year, including shopping for the people I love. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to put together a bookish gift guide. Whether you’re searching for a gift for a friend or want something special for yourself, I’m sure there’s something here for you. Let’s get shopping.

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  • Author Bookmarks | $5
    • I bought these for myself a while back, and they’re delightful.
  • Harper Perennial Olive Editions | $10
    • If you know someone who loves classics, the latest editions of the Olive series are beautiful.
  • Books Washi Tape | $3.55
    • Someone who keeps a planner or book journal would love this cute tape.
  • Edgar Allan Poe-ka Dot Pouch | $12
    • A friend gifted me this pouch years ago and it’s still going strong. It makes me happy every time I see it.
  • 100 Books Scratch-Off Poster | $15
    • How fun is this poster? If you get great joy from crossing off items on your to-do list, scratching off the squares might serve as a good push to read those classics you’ve meant to read.
  • Powell’s Literature Water Bottle | $12
    • When I use this water bottle, I feel more hydrated and well-read.

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  • Library Stamp T-Shirt | $28
    • This is perfect for any library lover.
  • Book Smart Tote Bag | $19.99
    • Make sure your bookworm best friend has something to carry her books in.
  • My Ideal Bookshelf | $24.99
    • This book is full of beautiful illustrations by Jane Mount and contains so many great reading recommendations.
  • William Shakespeare Library Candle | $25
    • Candles are lovely all year long, but especially when it gets cold outside. I might like reading Shakespeare more if I had this candle.
  • Reading Journal | Starts at $32.95
    • How cute is this journal? It’s customizable, too!
  • Reading Rest | $30
    •  This reading rest is ideal for someone who’s always reading on their lunch break.

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  • Personalized 5 Book Set | $195
    • A set from Juniper Books is on my bookish bucket list. Their work is just stunning.
  • 1984 Sweatshirt | $50
    • Wear the books you love with a literary sweatshirt.
  • Bookends + Lamp | Starts at $58.80
    • This is both functional and beautiful, a solid combo.
  • Book of the Month Subscription | $79.99 for 6 months
    • You know your sister wants to read more, but neither one of you know where to start. With a BOTM subscription, she can choose her own titles.
  • Custom Ideal Bookshelf Print | $95
    • If you know your BFF’s favorite books, this would be such a thoughtful, meaningful gift.
  • Page 1 Books Subscription | $70 for 3 months
    • If you like the idea of a book subscription but want something more personal than BOTM, Page 1 is a perfect choice.

May your holiday season include much bookish goodness.

My Favorite Political Books

With the U.S. midterm elections coming up tomorrow, I’ve had politics on my mind. I have zero desire to debate political beliefs or watch cable news, but I do love reading about politics and presidents.

Today I want to share some of my favorite books that fall into those categories. Some are biographies of presidents, others are memoirs, and some are extensive histories. Whatever your political leanings, I’m sure there’s something on this list that will pique your interest.

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The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity
by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

In this book, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy explore the relationships between presidents from Hoover to Obama. Because of the ever-widening divisions in American culture between Republicans and Democrats, you’d think the stories in this book would include tales of alliances between members of the same party and bickering by those who were opposed to each other. Yet in several cases, it’s Republicans and Democrats who have the closest relationships, such as Hoover and Truman and Clinton and Bush 41. It’s refreshing to read about how rivals overcame their political battles and entered into deep friendships. This is easily my favorite political book.

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The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency
by Chris Whipple

According to Chris Whipple, the average amount of time a White House Chief of Staff stays in their position is 18 months. If you wonder why it’s not longer, read this book. Chiefs of staff have included men as varied as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Rahm Emanuel, and James Baker. Some have been incredibly effective (like Baker), and others have kept on ascending until they were second in the line to the presidency (like Cheney). Their stories are utterly absorbing from start to finish. If you have even the slightest interest in politics, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

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Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush
by Jon Meacham

I picked up this biography because I’m a fan of Jon Meacham, but also because I was curious about George H. W. Bush. One of the reasons he intrigued me so much was because I noticed how people from both sides of the aisle seemed to talk about him with respect (not always, of course, but seemingly more often than not). After reading Destiny and Power, I understand why. This book is worth reading just to hear about Bush’s time serving in World War II. He’d be the first to tell you he’s not a perfect man, but his heroism is admirable, as is his dedication to his family and ideals.

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Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker

9/11 happened when I was in high school. Before that, I never paid much attention to who was in the White House. After the attacks, President Bush was everywhere and impossible to ignore. He was on every TV screen, newspaper, and website. It was the first time in my life that I’d ever thought much about the presidency, so I was immediately drawn to this book because of that first young awareness. Peter Baker’s history of the Bush/Cheney dynamic is as impossible to put down as any suspense novel I’ve ever read. It’s well-researched, thoughtful, and essential reading for anyone curious about Bush 43 and the complicated relationship he had with Dick Cheney. If you think history is boring, this book will probably change your mind.

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Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History
by Katy Tur

Katy Tur is a broadcast journalist who delivered NBC’s Trump coverage during the 2016 presidential campaign. This book is her story of that time. For a year and a half, Tur followed Trump around the country. She attended his rallies, was the victim of his insults, and consistently called him out on his lies. Tur’s stories about life on the campaign trail are fascinating, and I admire her tenacity and respect for truth. If you’re still bewildered by what happened in 2016, this book will give you a greater understanding of how Trump got elected.

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Fraternity: A Journey in Search of Five Presidents by Bob Greene

The five presidents the title references are Bush 41, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Nixon. Bob Greene talks to each of them (except for Reagan, who I believe passed away before this book was completed) and reveals portraits of five complex, deeply human,  and very different men. This book is one of the shorter ones I’m sharing today, but it packs so much into its 300 or so pages. Greene captures presidents at their most vulnerable and stripped down. This book is engrossing from start to finish. Go read it.

But most importantly, go vote. Elections have consequences. Make your voice heard.