Tell It Slant, by Eugene H. Peterson

Tell It Slant

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

Emily Dickinson

Eugene Peterson, author of The Message Bible paraphrase, discusses Jesus’ parables found in the book of Luke, as well as the seven prayers that Jesus prayed in the gospels. This is ostensibly a book about language, about why Jesus spoke as he did when he walked with his disciples in Samaria. “Samaria is the country between Galilee and Jerusalem in which we spend most of our time between Sundays.” (p. 18) Peterson brings out the very earthy examples that Jesus used as he established the kingdom of heaven, and he reveals deeply spiritual insights that are as startling to us today as they were to the residents of first-century Palestine.

This is The Book that I loved this year. I was one-third of the way through it when I went on vacation in April, and I am just now finishing it in July. I only read until I felt that I was not absorbing it anymore, and then I would move on to a novel or a different nonfiction book, only to come back later, ready for more. All those familiar stories that we nod over after years of sermons, or the ones our eyes slide back and forth over as we read Luke yet again, come to life in new colors in Peterson’s meditations. Who are you in the story of the Prodigal Son? How did the story of the Good Samaritan play to its original mixed audience of Jews and Samaritans? What in the world is the meaning of that carefully-avoided story of the Shrewd Manager?

Jesus often told us truths in stories, not lists of do’s and don’ts. Stories are the way that we communicate with one another across generations, and Jesus’ stories used familiar images that light up our imaginations, eschewing cold analysis and pulling us into the action, engaging the heart and the mind.

Eugene Peterson and BonoI am not a big fan of The Message Bible, although I use it sometimes to get fresh perspective on a too-familiar or confusing passage. Peterson is known in some circles as a controversial theologian, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church USA, someone who does not mind stirring the pot. I fell in love with this gentle soul, however, when I saw him on YouTube with Bono. They have an enthralling discussion on the Psalms, and we see Peterson and his wife as a soft-spoken and kind older couple, serving homemade cookies to an Irish rock star in their rural Montana home, where Bono came on pilgrimage. Here in Tell It Slant, Peterson’s language reveals an intimate relationship with Jesus, a deep life of prayer, and decades of thoughtful meditation on the scriptures. No controversy here; just drink in his wisdom.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Be sure to buy your own copy– it’s an inexpensive paperback. You’ll want to spend some time in these pages.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Bridge of Clay, by Markus Zusak

Bridge of ClayThere were five of them, the Dunbar boys. Their mother had died, their father had left, and they communicated their anguish and fierce love through their fists. Matthew, the oldest, tells the story of how he taped up Clay’s feet so that he could run punishing, barefoot races where Rory cursed at him and tackled him on the track. Meanwhile, Henry piled up gambling wins, and Tommy, the youngest, added one pet after another to his menagerie. They couldn’t seem to finish high school, but they could all play the piano. Their mother had seen to that. She had also soaked them in the words of Homer, just as her father had read the Iliad and the Odyssey to her before he planned her flight from the Nazis of Europe to her new home in Australia.

In his first novel in over a dozen years, Markus Zusak courses through the generations of one family, weaving a web of strings that all find their end in Clay, the sensitive, quiet Dunbar brother, the one who loves his parents’ stories and treasures them up in his heart. Clay, who brutally abuses his body when he runs, fights, and works. His brothers say that he is “in training,” but to what purpose? His brothers don’t even know how much he loves Carey, the new girl who is an apprentice jockey at the downtrodden racetrack near their house, or how he meets her every Saturday night in the middle of a field, chastely exchanging hearts and dreams.

This is a thoroughly male story, and even the wonderful female characters are seen through the eyes of the men, who are honorable, angry, heartbroken, loving, and tough. As Matthew’s account moves backward and forward in time, certain motifs run throughout the book: Homer and racehorses, music and Michelangelo, painting and clothes pegs. The animals all have Greek names, beginning with Hector the cat and ending with the inimitable mule, Achilles. The Monopoly games are epic. Male habits that confound women are brilliantly portrayed, such as talking to one another side by side while looking away into the distance or punching a brother instead of saying, “I’m sorry” or “I love you.” As a matter of fact, the unapologetic level of testosterone is startlingly outside of today’s gender-fluid YA literary norms. Furthermore, this novel deals with far more mature themes than are usually found in teen books, such as terminal illness, marriage, divorce, guilt, and life-changing regret. Death is almost as much a character in this novel as it was in The Book Thief.

Bridge on the PorchI first met Markus Zusak at the ALA convention in Washington, D.C., in 2007, when The Book Thief won a Printz Honor medal. That was a banner year for the Printz reception. The winner was Gene Luen Yang, the first author to win a Printz for a graphic novel, and the honor recipients were Zusak, John Green, Sonya Hartnett, and M.T. Anderson. At that time, the Printz Committee had all of the authors give speeches, so we were agog. Even before that evening, however, the Mock Printz Club from our library— almost all teenage girls— met Markus in the lunchroom, and since all of the seats were taken, he asked  whether he could eat lunch with us on the floor in the stairwell. Um, yes! You have never seen such a group of giddy girls—older and younger—and he was completely kind and chatty. It was the highlight of the conference.

Zusak’s style in Bridge of Clay was beautiful, and I enjoyed all of the story, but the ending slew me. I had no idea of what was coming, so gently and shockingly, and it took me a long time to recover. Everything fell into place, and I just loved those Dunbar boys.

@RHCBEducators

Disclaimer: I read a bound manuscript of this novel, sent to my colleague by the publisher, and ever so generously lent to me first. Bridge of Clay will be published in October, 2018. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer.

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Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

Spinning SilverMiryem was tired of being poor. She was tired of being cold, scrounging for food, and listening to her mother cough. She had seen a better life. Her mother’s family lived in the city in an impressive house, and they gave her delicious food and fine clothes when she visited. In their little village, though, her parents were scorned and hated because they were the only Jewish people in town—and because they were moneylenders.

Panov and Panovna Mandelstam’s pity and kindness made them the worst moneylenders in the world. When her mother’s health plunged to frightening lows, Miryem took matters into her own hands and went door to door to collect the debts their neighbors owed them. She had observed her grandfather and had learned to read and do sums. The villagers found her quite intimidating. Not only did she collect payments, though, she also learned to trade shrewdly, and soon her family was well fed, and she was putting gold into a safe at her grandfather’s house. She hired servants, and their lives were changed.

Miryem’s success did not go unobserved, particularly by the king of the Staryk, an icy civilization that existed in a world parallel to hers. The Staryk usually kept to their own pursuits, but when they were greedy or irritated with the humans, one could see their frozen roads shining closer than usual to the people’s homes. One day, the Staryk king knocked on the Mandelstams’ door and handed Miryem a small sack of silver coins, demanding that she change them into gold. Miryem knew that she had no magic powers, but could only change silver to gold in the mortal way: trading material things for a higher price. When she succeeded the first time, the Staryk set higher and higher tasks for her, until the day came when he carried her off to his crystalline castle, where she would marry him, become his prisoner, and change all the silver in his kingdom into gold.

Novik, author of the bestselling Uprooted, tells this story in several voices, as Miryem’s life touches and changes many others. As forces both human and supernatural threaten to bring permanent winter to the land, Miryem bands together with the young tsarina in a fight to save their loved ones’ lives. The plan will take courage, trust in their co-conspirators, perfect timing, and the ability to move back and forth between parallel worlds without detection. Fiery demons and icy faeries move in a fantastical Russian landscape in this feminist retelling of Rumpelstiltskin.

For adult fans of retold fairy tales, this novel is fast-paced, thrilling, and even a bit romantic. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Deep Work, by Cal Newport

Deep WorkIt’s hard to argue with the fact that we’re all more distracted than we’ve ever been in history. At the same time, manufacturing and other manual labor jobs are going away, and today’s worker is increasingly employed in some sort of “knowledge work.” One would assume that knowledge workers need quiet focus in order to fulfill their career missions, but the very companies that lead the field are those that promote wide open workspaces, supposedly to foster collaboration. Even in more traditional companies, an open room filled with cubicles is the norm, and employees are expected to stay connected to electronic forms of communication at all times, sometimes even at home. How can we perform deep work in this sort of environment?

Cal Newport has employed strategies in his own life that enable “deep work” in order to become one of the most productive professors at Georgetown University, publishing far more than most of his colleagues in spite of his young age. Beginning with his personal experimentation and expanding to his research on top producers in several fields, Newport has distilled his findings in this book, subtitled Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He realistically offers a range of suggestions that can be implemented by people in various vocations and levels of authority. A CEO may be able to roll out a new initiative for his entire company, whereas a single employee who undertakes that same strategy on his own may find himself unemployed very quickly, so Newport is sensible about each plan’s feasibility.

One of his main points, approached from several angles, is to reduce the number of interruptions that occur in one’s day, particularly from electronic sources. On one end of the spectrum, he tells of the award-winning author, Neal Stephenson, who does not even have an email account. This is even more amazing when one considers that Stephenson is a science fiction writer. He refuses to create an obligation for himself to respond to people he does not know. This level of disconnectedness is impossible for most people, though. Rather, Newport suggests ways to limit our Pavlovian response to the “new email” signal, still responding, but remaining in control of our concentration on more important tasks. He presents questions to ask yourself about whether you should be using Twitter, routines to follow to start and end your work day, and architectural ideas for owners to build better work spaces for higher levels of production from their employees. All of his strategies can be tailored to suit a variety of vocations that would benefit from more focused time, from artists and writers to entrepreneurs and computer developers.

I first heard about this book while listening to a young pastor discuss his church growth strategy on a radio talk show. When I researched it, I discovered that it was on many lists of the Top Ten Nonfiction Books of 2017.

Newport believes that the future belongs to the most focused workers, and that they are rapidly becoming the privileged few. Deep Work will empower and encourage you to incorporate new practices in your life that will ensure that you are part of that small group.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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For Everyone, by Jason Reynolds

For EveryoneJason Reynolds is the author of a number of brilliant novels for tweens and teens, including Ghost and Long Way Down, to name just two. I have had the privilege of hearing him speak several times, and he is always a moving storyteller, but more to the point, he reveals himself to be both a deep thinker and a hard worker.

This new title is in a different category than his novels. It made a perfect gift for a recent graduate of my acquaintance. It is a long, poetic letter to everyone who has a dream. Reynolds gleans from his own experiences for some of the content, relating the internal burning to express oneself and the collaboration with friends who are also yearning to realize their dreams. He talks about starting on his journey as a little child, but he also tells the story of landing back at home in his mid-twenties to discover that his mother, who had retired from her 9-to-5 career, had found her dream of helping children and caring for the needy. So, you’re never too old to begin. He is a creative person, but he extends the net to others who want to be athletes or entrepreneurs. He describes the fear and doubt that creep in, keeping us from leaving a place of bland security, and tells us to “jump anyway.”

Reynolds was on an author panel once when he was asked that perennial question: “What advice do you have for aspiring writers?” His answer was simply, “Do the work.” He keeps to an incredibly disciplined schedule and is a living mission statement for children’s authors. When he writes an inspirational book like For Everyone, it is not to encourage young people to keep on believing that all good things will fall into their laps. No, it is to encourage them to do the work, feed the burn, and jump anyway.

This is a small, inspiring book for all ages and all walks of life, everyone who needs a match to relight that candle. It is for everyone.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Death at La Fenice, by Donna Leon

Death at La FeniceAh, Venezia! Gondolas glide down the canals, palaces shimmer in the water, and opera maestros die between the first and second acts of La Traviata. Who did it? Was it the young, German wife? The diva soprano or her American female companion? How about the theatrical director with whom he argued just before the production began?

Never fear, Commissario Brunetti is on the case, conducting interviews between sips of espresso or prosecco. His schoolteacher wife is from a well-connected and wealthy family, and Brunetti reluctantly uses their help to gain access to the glitterati, ever aware of his own working-class childhood. Rounding out the cast are their precocious twelve-year-old daughter, an officious and politically obsequious chief, a couple of useless detectives, and several more intriguing suspects. The city of Venice is a character on its own, infusing every scene with faded glory, luxurious living, and proud culture.

Death at La Fenice is the first volume in the “Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery” series, and the reader will be eager to return to this beautiful place with such charming characters. Signor Brunetti stands in front of his suspects, reading from the notebook he holds open in his hand, when the actual writing on the page is a list of books that he would like to read. Who doesn’t love a man who keeps a “To Be Read” list? His wife is a brilliant, refined woman with an insatiable appetite for scandalous gossip magazines. She always wants to guess the killer in his homicide cases on the very first day, and she is always wrong. Their marriage is inspiring, and they treat one another with respect and a fun sense of humor.

The suspects were a diverse lot, and I did not guess the truth until fairly close to the end, unlike my husband, who always guesses the correct answer—Professor Plum in the conservatory with the lead pipe—in the very first act. (Do not go to the movies with him. He declares it out loud.) Donna Leon has a winner of a series here. Death at La Fenice was written in 1992,  and I look forward to 26 more trips to Italy with the commissario.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer.

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Vacation Reading

My extended family recently went on a quiet vacation to historic Virginia, and I chose a couple of light novels to read during the week.

Gods in AlabamaGods in Alabama, by Joshilyn Jackson

This was my second title by Jackson. I reviewed The Almost Sisters here. Gods in Alabama was Jackson’s first big hit, and a librarian friend had recommended it for me a couple of years ago.

Arlene Fleet is busy living in Chicago, working hard as a graduate assistant and happily dating an African-American man. In other words, she is trying her best to completely reject her white, Southern Baptist upbringing. Just as she thinks she has succeeded in leaving Alabama behind, one of the strangest girls from high school shows up at her door, hoping to involve Arlene in her attempt to cleanse her past and achieve perfect, holistic, self-actualization. Zany as this may sound, Arlene had serious reasons to leave home, and her classmate is veering dangerously close to uncovering a dark secret. Eventually, Arlene realizes that she has to go home, boyfriend in tow, to face her mentally-ill mother, her severe, overbearing aunt, and her beautiful, angelic cousin. Will her boyfriend still marry her if she’s headed to prison?

This book was far darker and grittier than The Almost Sisters. One of the major themes of the book requires some fairly graphic language and sexual content, so I spent some of the time feeling uncomfortable. On the other hand, Jackson sends the plot through so many twists and turns that the reader is constantly questioning her assumptions. Absolutely a page-turner, and the conclusion was not exactly what I was expecting.

Saturday Night Supper ClubThe Saturday Night Supper Club, by Carla Laureano

Rachel Bishop was too busy working as the star chef of a hot new Denver restaurant to pay attention when a friend told her that an article about her was going viral. Social media lit up over Alex Kanin’s essay, but Rachel figured it would all fizzle away if she ignored it and dealt instead with staffing issues and tomorrow night’s menu. When she walked out of the restaurant into a reporter’s microphone, she wasn’t prepared, and she said enough to be clipped and reworked into a very damaging statement. Before long, there was a social media movement against her, and her partners decided that the best way to save their shirts was to buy her out of her investment in the restaurant. Rachel went from rising star to unemployed in a day.

Alex had had one big hit book, but the contract on his next book was completely unfilled— and his agent was getting nervous. He kept on writing, mostly articles for good magazines, but the ideas he had for the book just wouldn’t come together. He was glad that his article about the anonymous chef had been such a success until someone told him that he had single-handedly destroyed her life. How could he make it up to her?

Good friends, food trucks, family, and the wealthy foodie scene in Denver keep this light romance moving. There is talk of faith and healing troubled pasts, but nothing gets too heavy or, actually, resolved in that arena. Readers who enjoy the writing process (check) or the food scene (check) will have fun with this novel, the first of a series.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of both of these novels. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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