6 Books that Move Me

I (Liz) am often asked for book recommendations when people hear that I’m a writer. “What are you reading lately?” they’ll ask, or perhaps, “What’s your favorite book?”

I read a lot (though not as much as our friend Anthony Ashley), and on a brief perusal of my bookshelf, I’m going to share with you six books I love, books that have moved me and stuck with me though time has got between us.

{Oh, and I should warn you that many of these books deal with characters struggling to make sense of death — I noticed that cheery theme when I was putting this post together. They are simply stories that matter, and so of course they deal with death (though they also deal with happier themes).}

I present to you…
(in order of when I read them)…

1. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2007)

Robinson’s novel, Gilead, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005, and if you sit down to live with it for a few months, you’ll find out why. Many people struggle through it on the first read because its pace is leisurely, conversational, and downright slow. Essentially, you’re invited to enter Reverend John Ames’ last days in the rural town of Gilead, Iowa, as he writes an extended letter (i.e. the story of his life, which makes up the novel) to his seven-year-old son.

This stroll through the Reverend’s life is poetic and simple, marked by stunning everyday scenes, like this one:

“I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst. So I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity. She was actually leaping into the air, our insouciant Soapy! …Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world.” (p.9)

I found myself so caught up and in love with the characters in this novel — the Reverend Ames, his son, his wife whom he loves dearly, his best friend Reverend Boughton and Reverend Boughton’s family, who causes Reverend Ames some trouble in his last days.

Not only that, but the Reverend is constantly talking about God. He wonders about forgiveness and heaven and grace, and struggles through extending grace to a man who has deeply wounded him and his friends. Ultimately, love wins, in every way that it should. I often found myself in tears. The words of this novel seeped into my skin and the characters informed my soul.

2. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2008)

“Nine months and five days ago, at approximately nine o’clock on the evening of December 30, 2003, my husband, John Gregory Dunne, appeared to (or did) experience, at the table where he and I had just sat down to dinner in the living room of our apartment in New York, a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death” — so begins Joan Didion’s life without her husband John (pp.6-7).

Joan Didion is a journalist, and it shows; even in this heart-breaking true account of her husband’s death and the year that followed his death, she repeats the facts over and over to herself, as if taking stock of what she knows will help explain the one thing she does not know: how she will live without him. You feel the waves of her grief wash over you like a tide as Didion comes back to same instances, trying to make sense of them in a new way, grasping for understanding and begging the facts to return John to her. This memoir rends the heart, painting a stark picture of death and grief without Christ.

And yet Didion writes strikingly honest prose, facing the facts with courage — after all, how many people write of the days and year following any loved one’s death? At the memoir’s end, Didion writes, “I think about swimming with John into the cave at Portuguese Bend, about the swell of the clear water, the way it changed, the swiftness and power it gained as it narrowed through the rocks at the base of the point. The tide had to be just right. We had to be int he water at the very moment the tide was right. We could only have done this a half-dozen times at most during the two years we lived there, but it is what I remember. Each time we did it, I was afraid of missing the swell, hanging back, timing it wrong. John never was. You had to feel the swell change. You had to go with the change. He told me that. No eye is on the sparrow, but he did tell me that.” You are left with a sense of deep loss and deep courage, knowing that to lose someone and choose to live is the greatest act of courage of all.

3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters & Papers from Prison (2008)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who lived and wrote during World War II. He and the confessing Christian church in Nazi Germany strongly opposed Hitler, and Bonhoeffer even went so far as to join a group plotting to assassinate Hitler (as you may have guessed, their plot failed, and Bonhoeffer ended up spending the end of the war in a Nazi prison and was killed just before V-E Day). He was a man of great courage and sound theology, as many of you know.

However, when a professor of mine assigned this collection, his essays and letters written to friends and family while he spent his last days in a Nazi prison cell, I found I couldn’t put it down. Bonhoeffer had intimate relationships with his family and friends that mirrored the type of Christian community that anyone would dream of. Not only that, but his theology leaked onto every page of the collection; you saw his theology lived out in his relationships and the everyday words he shared with them. It reminded me of the apostle Paul in some sense, and I found myself intrigued by the thoughts that go through someone’s head when they have decided to die for the name of Christ, or at least to love Christ in the midst of persecution. This book inspired me to follow in the steps of the apostles and martyrs that have come before me, loving Christ with their all: this is our great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12).

4. William Paul Young’s The Shack (2009)

The Shack is an allegory for our time: it describes a father’s struggle to make sense the horrific kidnapping and murder of his youngest daughter, Missy, through the lens of Christ. The tale begins with Mack (the father) receiving a note in his mailbox from God, beckoning Mack to meet God at the “shack” out in the middle of the woods where his daughter Missy was probably raped and then brutally murdered. Of course, Mack thinks this is crazy until he finds himself trekking out to this shack, trudging through thick snow, and then sinking down into the floor of the shack to fall asleep. Then, you as the reader assume that Mack has a vision of the Trinity, who helps him face Missy’s death and who heals him. He leaves the shack a changed man. End of story.

God the Father is portrayed as a large, boisterous, and joyous black woman because Mack’s own father was an abusive alcoholic. The Holy Spirit is portrayed as a shimmering woman, never quite stable in your line of sight, and Jesus is portrayed as the brawniest, friendliest Jewish man you’d ever meet. (There’s been some controversy over these Trinitarian portrayals, but I believe the people who are concerned about this have forgotten the importance of the imagination and of theological metaphor.)

During the reading of the book, I started to imagine the members of the Trinity with me in this way– holding my hand in the car, lying on the floor with me during the deep breathing exercise at yoga, walking along a path in the woods with me, ever-present, behind and before me. I have to tell you, I have never felt so close to understanding all the members of the Trinity as I have through this metaphor — somehow telling me that God is like the different forms of water or the parts of an egg is just not relational enough for me.

Not only that, but I believe this story has a powerful message to share about suffering. Why does God allow suffering? How could a good God allow THAT to happen? Why ever? Why at all? I don’t know any of us who have not asked these heart questions of our good Father, doubting His Sovereign care of us.

I should note that the writing, the editing, the dialogue, and the characters themselves are not good… Sad to say. However, I believe that you and I can read this book as a heartfelt plea to know God, not a Pulitzer-prize winning novel. (Swallow your literary pride on this one, friends)

5. Marilynne Robinson’s Home (2011)

http://www.aholyexperience.com/ companion book to Gilead, Marilynne Robinson continues the tale in small town Iowa, but from another angle. This time, we hear Reverend Boughton’s family’s voice, focusing in particular on the Reverend, his prodigal son, Jack, and his daughter Glory.

I wept through this novel. Robinson’s writing is spare in comparison with her writing in Gilead, which almost falls into prose poetry at points, but the point is clear: grace and forgiveness are extended freely to those who will accept them.

You watch the Reverend Boughton and Glory struggle with the sudden return of Jack to his childhood home after a long, silent absence. Jack himself comes home only to remember the years of alienation he has felt from his family because of his immoral choices, which has shamed the family more than once. You watch the family dig up old quarrels and old misunderstandings about each other and their lives, and you watch it simultaneously hurt and heal them. And as the truth about Jack’s past comes out over the course of the novel, a past that was previously hidden from all of Jack’s family, you watch a sweeping grace envelop them as the honest truth sets them free.

(I’m going to resist being more specific simply because the secrets that come out about Jack are what drive the plot forward and keep you reading!)

I’m going to leave you with the Reverend’s beautiful prayer over the first meal he eats with his returned runaway son:

“Holy Father, I have rehearsed this prayer in my mind a thousand times, this prayer of gratitude and rejoicing, as I waited for an evening like this one. But when I think what it is that brings us to our Father, it might be grief or sickness–trouble of some sort. Weariness. And then there we are, and it’s a good thing at such times to know we have a Father, whose joy it is to welcome us home. It really is” (p.41).

6. Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts (2011)

Again, Ann Voskamp’s memoir begins with tragedy: readers are taken to the day her two-year-old sister died, run over in the driveway, her mother weeping over her small form, blood on her apron. I put the book down at that point — I didn’t want to read a sad story. But I’m glad I picked it up again, because One Thousand Gifts has become my favorite book of 2011.

So why begin with such tragedy? Because it shaped Ann’s heart, making it small and bitter, closed to the love and gifts of God. Yet through the course of the memoir, you watch her heart open as she learns that gratitude, “eucharisteo,” for the daily and ordinary gifts of God is the way to a life of freedom in Christ: freedom from anxiety, freedom into joy, freedom to serve and love like Jesus. Recognizing God and His gifts brings freedom.

I read this book as a daily devotional, soaking up Ann’s poetic words and ordinary moments like I would a sermon. Her daily life as a farmer’s wife and mother of six inspired me. Her decision to write 1,000 thank-you’s to God, in the form of a list, became a mantra for me: I’m feeling unhappy? Give thanks. I’m feeling rejected and powerless? Give thanks. I’m feeling unknown and unloved? Give thanks. I’m feeling joyful and successful? Give thanks! Why? Because of God. Because of who He is and what He gave us through His Son Jesus!

As Ann captures so well, “One lone stem of wheat bows its head before me. Behind it, the perfect backdrop of pure moon full, pregnant with the grandeur.

“I reach out my hand, run my finger up its silk slender shank. This is how. I learn how to say thank you from a laid-low head of wheat. From the wind rustling glory through the dried blades of grass raised, from the leaves in the silver maple hushed awed still. I pay tribute to God by paying attention. I raise one hand high. And another hand high. I bow the head down. I lay the body down.

“‘The life of true holiness is rooted in the soil of awed adoration. It down not grow elsewhere,’ writes J.I. Packer. I am bowed like wheat, raised like grass blades, grounded and rooted to now, and from Him and through Him and to Him are all things and all is His and everything that has breath praises Him and I whisper it again, again, again, remembering, remembering, remembering.

“…All beauty is only a reflection.”

And for that, I give thanks!

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5 thoughts on “6 Books that Move Me

  1. Well this is the second time in one day Gilead has been recommended to me by a blogger I respect so I guess I’, going to read it. The other blogger included Gilead in a list of books that are good for the Lenten season which makes sense since you say it’s about death and God and life and whatnot. Thanks!

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  2. Funny, we have a lot of books in common. I am not familiar with Gilead or Home, going to have to check them out. That is assuming Anthony doesn’t already have them checked out 🙂

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  3. Hey Liz =) I just finished a book that I think you might enjoy. It is called “7,” by Jen Hatmaker. The book chronicles her experiment with a series of seven very different fasts, each lasting one month. In her very conversational and informal tone, she’s both hilarious and insightful. It is simultaneously a quick, light read and a thought-provoking (and action-provoking!) one.

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    1. Hello, Heather! Liz here. 🙂 I am very interested in reading that book! Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll put it on hold at the library. Also thanks for your mother’s day comment! Lots of exciting things happening for me at the moment. I hope you’re well.

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