Category Archives: Men and Women

Becoming Mrs. Lewis, by Patti Callahan

Becoming Mrs. LewisRivers of ink have been spilled by and about C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don who wrote 20th century classics for children and adults, such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Through the years since his death, biographers have given us hints of his late-in-life marriage to Joy Davidman, and the book and movie Shadowlands have introduced her to the public. Rarely, though, have we seen their relationship through her eyes, but now Patti Callahan has written a novel that moves this misunderstood woman to the forefront.

Joy Davidman was born into a scholarly Jewish family and later converted to Christianity as an adult. When the novel opens, she is a young mother of two boys, married to an alcoholic and adulterous husband. Both of them are writers, and because of the times, Joy is expected to put up with her husband’s behavior and concentrate on improving her homemaking and motherly skills, pushing her own writing aside until her boys are grown. When a friend gives her a couple of books by C.S. Lewis, she takes a risk and writes to him for advice on a theological question. They continue to exchange letters for several years, increasingly confiding in one another and becoming close friends.

When several health issues and her difficult marriage have both reached crisis level, Joy travels to England to consult with doctors there and to do research for her writing projects. Here she finally meets Jack, as Lewis was called, and his brother, Warnie. She soaks in the history and beauty at Oxford and at The Kilns, Lewis’ home. While she is there, she receives a letter from her husband informing her that he is in love with her cousin and is living with her, along with their young sons. Joy’s life is at a crossroads.

The story takes place over years, but nothing goes smoothly for Joy, her sons, or her overwhelming love for Jack, fifteen years her senior and seemingly oblivious to her devotion. She is an acclaimed poet, but no one sees the series of sonnets that she writes to him. She longs to tell him of her feelings, but he is cheerfully friendly and perhaps purposely obtuse. All the while, he arranges to see her every day, asks for her help with his work, and considers her a member of his family. Warnie is devoted to her, and Jack acts as a father to her children, but romantic love is completely absent. It takes a catastrophe to open his eyes, and then it is almost too late.

Using all of the Lewis scholarship available, plus Joy’s prolific papers, poems, and the letters between them, Callahan has filled in the gaps with imagined conversations and Joy’s intimate thoughts on her frustrating, fulfilling, and quietly spectacular life. There are many famous individuals among their acquaintance, and they weave in and out of the narrative. Tolkien, in particular, disapproved of Joy intensely, even though he was a happily married man himself. Callahan is not on a feminist rant here at all, but she does include gentle reminders that even nice men did not respect women’s work just fifty or sixty years ago (or ten or five or yesterday). Callahan has also interviewed Douglas Gresham, Joy’s son and one of Lewis’ most authoritative biographers. As a matter of fact, I own a Lewis biography by Gresham and had forgotten that Gresham was Joy’s married name.

Lewis lived most of his life before he met Joy, and his earlier romantic relationships have been—and remain—an interesting and perhaps unseemly mystery, but his evolving and complex relationship with Joy Davidman affected him so deeply as to change him in foundational ways. Not only did he rethink his opinions on serious issues, but he also seemed to open doors in his soul that he had kept locked all of his life. Joy was his muse for the book he declared to be his favorite, Till We Have Faces, and, of course, she is the subject of A Grief Observed. However, Joy Davidman met her great love after having lived a full life, as well, and together they played a tragic, but magnificent, final act.

I highly recommend this book to all those who are fellow Lewis nerds, historical fiction fans, and to anyone who relishes a great story with literary characters.

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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Fatal Throne: The Wives of Henry VIII Tell All

Fatal ThroneSurely, we’ve heard everything there is to say about the Tudors, right? We’re Tudored out! Well… tell me everything you know about Anne of Cleves. Yeah, me too.

The fact is that most of us know a good bit about Catherine of Aragon and far more than we should about Anne Boleyn, and that’s it. Maybe a smattering of Jane Seymour. From an academic viewpoint, the separation of England from the church of Rome happened during the divorce of Catherine and the marriage of Anne, and Anne Boleyn was the first reigning queen to be executed in England, all of which makes for a lot of dramatic material. From a more prurient, Hollywood standpoint, a young and handsome king committing adultery on his religious wife with a beautiful, coquettish daughter of the nobility will bring in the dollars. Shows about sickly, old boors who are still trying for more heirs won’t pop anybody’s popcorn.

In this brand-new collaboration, celebrated female authors each take one of the six wives and tell her story, interspersed with the perspective of Henry, written by National Book Award-winning author M.T. Anderson. These are big names in young adult literature: Candace Fleming, Stephanie Hemphill, Lisa Ann Sandell, Jennifer Donnelly, Linda Sue Park, and Deborah Hopkinson. They reveal girls who grew up quickly, traveling across the sea or thrust from their fathers’ and brothers’ bargaining tables, setting aside their own dreams to become childbearers in a huge political game, changing the course of history while embroidering a royal layette. Anne Boleyn was not concerned with the fate of Christendom, but her name is permanently entwined in the story. Anne of Cleves was not interested in marriage at all, while Catherine Parr was an excellent theologian, and almost lost her head by revealing the depth of her knowledge. Anderson’s interludes are infuriating to read– hence brilliantly effective– as Henry never doubts that he is justified in all of his actions, since he is both a man and the king.

I have always felt a great sympathy for Catherine of Aragon, who expected to lead a noble and dignified life and certainly lived up to her part of the bargain, although she produced a terrifying daughter. Even Mary’s story and that of the other Tudor children are woven into the background of the tale. By the time Henry’s life was over, his wives and his daughters were getting close to the same age. This is probably the first time since the 1970s BBC production that I’ve gotten to know the later wives so well—the good, the bad, and the fascinating.

This story is written for adults and young adults who are old enough to understand the sexual details of producing heirs and how that process might get complicated with an older man with health issues. I admit to being surprised at the candor of some of the bedroom scenes, which are far from romantic. A bracing antidote to any steamy television shows concerning Henry.

No teen could ever consider history boring again after this happy combination of talents brings the ultimate dysfunctional family to life. Highly recommended for adults and mature teens.

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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Blood Water Paint, by Joy McCullough

Blood Water PaintOnce her father had despaired of finding any talent in his sons, he put Artemisia to work in his studio, grinding pigments and preparing canvases. He soon realized that she could paint, so he allowed her to fill in the backgrounds on some of his paintings. Artemisia began encroaching further and further into her father’s figures, and then she struck out on her own. Her father’s signature was always in the corner, but his patrons knew that an old man would not suddenly become gifted. No, it was the silent girl in the shadows who brought life to the old, traditional pictures.

Judith and her servant with Holofernes

Artemisia reveled in painting the great heroines of the Bible. Although she could not read, her mother had made sure that her only daughter knew these stories before she died in childbirth with her second girl child, who also perished. All of the artists before her had portrayed Judith and Susanna as mild and pleasant, but Artemisia knew their fear and anger, and she painted their true emotions onto her canvases. Eventually, her father decided to nurture her gift, so he hired another artist to teach her perspective. Artemisia fell in love, and she thought that he was proposing marriage to her, but he was proposing something else entirely.

McCullough relates this true story in verse, with dialogue noted in italics. The reader sees through Artemisia’s eyes, with other characters’ dialogue appearing in a separate column. Artemisia Gentileschi was a Renaissance artist in a time when women were not encouraged to express themselves publicly. A quick Google search will display her prolific work in the familiar Renaissance style, with shimmering figures glowing out of the darkness. Although paintings of these Biblical—often apocryphal— stories were common, Artemisia’s women are different. Her madonnas love the baby Jesus, they are not ethereal and passive. In McCullough’s story, the artist identifies closely with Judith, so it is not strange that we see strength and vengeance in her eye as Judith cuts off Holofernes’ head. And here is Jael, enthusiastically driving a stake through Sisera’s head. There seems to be a theme here. Jael and SiseraFortunately for posterity, when she was not painting women murdering men, she turned to self-portraits. In this picture, she presents herself as the personification of Painting.

Artemisia self-portrait

Artemisia Gentileschi as the Personification of Painting

Released at the height of the #MeToo movement, Blood Water Paint is an important and brutal work. Young women, especially, can take heart that Artemisia Gentileschi survived rape and went on to become a great artist, against all odds. This story will provide an opportunity not only to learn about Renaissance art, but also about Biblical women who are characters in the part of the Bible that is called the Apocrypha in Protestant churches. Because of the mature subject matter, this book is best for older teens and adults.

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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A Library for Juana: The World of Sor Juana Inés, by Pat Mora

Library for JuanaWhen she was just a little girl in Mexico City in the 1600s, Juana Inés wanted to read all of the books in her abuelo’s library, but her mother said that she was too young. She asked endless questions, and skipped along making rhymes all day long. When her older sister went to school at her neighbor’s house, Juana begged to go, too. Her parents relented, and soon Juana was studying everything she could find and writing poems for her mother’s birthday. Later, living with her aunt and uncle in the big city, she kept her tutor busy teaching her Latin and many other languages. At fifteen, she became a lady-in-waiting at the palace, writing poems and riddles for the amusement of the court, amazing scholars with her learning, and reading as much of the royal library as she could. Eventually, the young woman decided to become a nun, changing her name to the now well-known Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

When someone mentioned her in a library meeting recently, I had never heard of Juana Inés, so after looking her up on Wikipedia, I checked out this children’s biography. I have often found children’s biographies to be quick, introductory sources of information that avoid getting bogged down with all the tiny details of a person’s life. They convey the central importance of the subject and are often very beautiful, as is the case with this volume, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal. Of course, Pat Mora could not delve deeply into the struggles that Juana had with the men over her in the church hierarchy who did not accept a woman speaking and writing about theological issues. Eventually Sor Juana was severely punished and lost everything. Today, she is known as one of North America’s greatest poets, earning the nickname “Mexico’s Tenth Muse.” Probably the most famous book for adults exploring Juana Inés’ philosophy and theology is Sor Juana: Or the Traps of Faith, by Nobel laureate Octavio Paz. Juana Inés is widely revered for her lifelong support of female education. Imagine the riches we have forfeited through the centuries because women were kept from learning.

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

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The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan

chilbury-ladies-choirIn 1940s England, all the men of fighting age are gone. Since there are no male voices, the vicar of the Chilbury village church decides to suspend the choir. However, Miss Prim is a determined voice instructor, and she sees no reason that the women cannot continue to sing on their own, shocking as that decision may be. Once the ladies realize that they can sing by themselves, work hard for the war effort, and run their families and their village quite well, they begin to rethink many of the traditional restrictions on their lives.

A village is a perfect setting to stage a microcosm of life. All types of people live here, from the bullying general to the mousy church lady, the flirtatious young beauty and the quiet young scholar. In every tiny town, one can find an evil villain masquerading as a good neighbor and a most unlikely courageous hero. All of these characters and more are living in Chilbury, struggling through the dangers and privations of World War II. Tough times tend to highlight the strengths and deficiencies of one’s character, and we can watch the villagers change as they see themselves more clearly or adjust to the tumultuous world around them.

This epistolary novel is told in letters, journal entries, and the occasional poster or announcement. At first, the rotating point of view seems confusing, but there are only a few regular writers, and the reader comes to know and care for them deeply. All the other villagers are seen through their eyes. The many plot strands weave together seamlessly, revealing that village gossip and scandal never take a pause, even during world-changing events.

Ryan’s novel has been compared to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, since they are both epistolary British novels set in World War II. The comparison is apt, up to a point, but I recommended Guernsey to everyone, and although Chilbury is both emotionally moving and loads of fun, it is much more of a women’s novel. The few men in the story are quite often reprehensible, along the lines of a Lifetime Channel movie, and are seen through women’s eyes. There are no male primary characters. That being said, there is much to discuss in this novel, and it would make a fantastic women’s book club choice. It is also the first book I read on the new porch, so it will always have a place in my heart!

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which is now available for purchase. Opinions expressed are solely my own, and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

Lie TreeFourteen-year-old Faith Sunderly and her family are fleeing to a remote island, and Faith has no idea why. Her stern clergyman father is a naturalist of some renown, and she suspects that he has made someone upset. Has he been outspoken about his position on the new theory of evolution? Not that Faith is sure what his position might be, if he has. All she knows is that she and her pretty, flirtatious mother, her affable Uncle Miles, and her little brother, Howard, have been whisked away to the island of Vane, where her father will be joining a local archeology dig.

Plain, brilliant Faith is a disappointment to her mother, so she is usually banished to the nursery to take care of Howard, while she would rather be studying natural science with her father. The servants in the house they’ve rented are gossiping over a newspaper story about Faith’s father, but young ladies are not allowed to read newspapers, so she can’t figure out why the islanders whisper about them, or why her family seems so nervous. Faith has learned that hiding her intelligence allows her to listen quietly and to gather information without being noticed. When a terrible calamity happens, Faith may be the only one who can solve a mystery and save her family from ruin.

Hardinge’s multi-starred historical fiction novel has well-developed secondary characters, including the coroner’s strange teenage son and several adults who are much more dangerous than they seem. The magical tree at the heart of the story feeds on lies, and Faith begins to realize that the wild growth of the lie tree reveals the darkness that grows in her own soul. The increasing struggle between the mother, who is transparently using her beauty and almost scandalous flirtation to get her own way with men, and the scholarly daughter, who is suffocating from the narrow confines of women’s roles in the nineteenth century, is brought to a poignant resolution in a scene near the end of the novel.

This slowly-unfolding mystery has heart-stopping suspense and a strong streak of feminism, and it shines a bright light on the darkness in our souls that may cause us to pursue our own desires, no matter what the cost to ourselves and others. Recommended for young teens.

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

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Sarah Bessey and Me

Several years ago, a pastor told me that the Bible’s teaching on women implied that women should never supervise men at work. At the time, I supervised two, so I told him it was too late. So he said that I should give them preference over the women I supervised, just because of their gender. I kid you not. Fast forward a few years, and a woman in our small group opined that a woman’s main role in the workplace is to make the men there feel better about themselves. Try as I might, I cannot find this chapter or verse in my Bible. Furthermore, I think my employer would be much more pleased if I followed the Bible’s real admonition to employees, which is to work for your employer with a great attitude, as if you were working for the Lord, instead of other people.* Apparently, though, no one in the room found her opinion sort of creepy except for me. There was more, but you can imagine my state of mind.

Jesus FeministIn my line of work, book titles run past my eyes all day long every day, and one day that title was Jesus Feminist. I tend to turn away from the word “feminist,” since it is so often allied with the hard-left, pro-choice crowd, but this was just too provocative, so I took a look, read the description, logged into my Amazon account, and made my first acquaintance with this Canadian pastor’s wife, blogger, and mommy.

We all have visions of our future lives when we are young, and having a full-time career was not part of my vision. Mother, wife, and maybe writer, yes. But I believe in a sovereign God, and a decade and a half ago, we went through a life-changing chain of events, and here I am, doing what I sincerely believe is the right thing to do—the honorable, loving, and responsible thing to do—and I have found happiness there. All day, every day, I am surrounded by brilliant, hardworking women who find great meaning in their work. I believe in a God who gifts people with the ability to make other lives better, and who puts each person in place for the good of all. The universe is not random. So how can someone else who believes in a sovereign God say that the way I lay down my life is a sin?

I opened Jesus Feminist and wept in the introduction. I sobbed through the first two chapters. I found someone who had been here before me, and she dealt with her wounds by reading the gospels over and over. She reminded me that Jesus treated women like people. He talked to them directly, against the custom of the day, and never treated them as “other.” She reprinted a Dorothy L. Sayer essay that I read decades ago that is still one of the best things I’ve ever read on the topic of Jesus and women. Sarah Bessey reminded me, in her poetic, storyteller fashion, that Jesus truly loved me, and that’s all I really needed to hear. Some of the later chapters didn’t speak to me as much, but those first chapters were so powerful that this bright yellow paperback has sat on my desk, beside my laptop, ever since then. Not that I told anyone, though, because I knew how controversial she was, and I didn’t want to be met with either gasps or outrage.

Last summer was another life-changing time. Everyone knows that it was a summer of grief over my mother’s death, as well as months filled with unrelenting physical pain from the compressed discs in my neck causing nerve pain all the way down my arm, but I’ve never told the story of the deep wound gouged into my soul during this rough time.

David and I have moved around a lot in our lives. For the first twenty years of our marriage, we moved about every five years for David’s work. Sometimes the transitions were heartbreaking, but we met all kinds of people and learned a lot from them. We studied loads of theology, visited dozens of churches, and had long, intense discussions late into the night with some folks who are deeply lodged in my heart forever. By my best count, we have been members or long-term visitors of ten separate denominations, and more than one church for a couple of those. I feel old just saying that. We’ve hosted church in our house and helped to start a couple of churches from scratch. We’ve driven long distances to church for years a couple of times, just to be sure that the teaching and fellowship we were receiving were truly biblical. We knew of a small denomination that agreed with us that two seemingly opposing ideas were both Biblical, but we never lived near one of their churches until we lived here. We were passionately devoted members of this church for seven years—until last year. When my mother died last summer, my church did—nothing. I received sympathy cards from individuals, and I treasured each one, but as a church: nothing. No meals, no visits, not even a phone call from my most beloved church of my whole life.

In the year since my mother’s death, I have had time to reflect on what God may be teaching me through long nights of grief, pain, and loneliness. I have worked and prayed to forgive, and I have come miles down that road by his grace. I have learned that love, in God’s eyes, is the most important thing, and I’ve repented for the times I didn’t love others as I should have. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” I’ve realized that those first three verses of 1 Corinthians 13 cover all the kinds of churches in the world, from charismatic to reformed to legalistic to liberal, whereas I had only seen individuals in those verses before. The last verse of that chapter, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love,” has become my heart’s cry. I am doing my best to love now, having people in my home, supporting everyone I can, and praying for the most unlikely people. I will never be good at this—it is not my gift—but it is everyone’s calling.

At the same time, other things have become less important. I have started taking stock of the ways that I have fit myself into someone else’s mold, rather than reading the Bible without filters and living what it says. We live in a world full of noise, with someone telling us what to think about everything, and when we agree with one side about an issue, we’re thrown into a box with dozens of other opinions that we’re expected to believe as well. But I don’t, and it’s becoming bewildering to think that I’m the only one who holds nuanced opinions that don’t fit neatly onto a bumper sticker.

Out of SortsAnd along came Sarah Bessey again. When I saw her new book title, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, I thought, “Yes, that’s where I am.” Truly, if your faith is not evolving, you are just not paying attention, and considering the political events of the past year, I think most Christians are not thinking deeply enough about their faith. The idea that our religion can be co-opted into a political cause is tremendously disturbing in its own right. Combining the events of my personal life with the national, even global, turmoil has caused me to be discouraged and almost despairing for particular churches, but also for the universal Church. Heaven knows the answer doesn’t lie in creating yet another denomination.

Ms. Bessey is one of a growing group of believers who think that the church is ripe for a new reformation, and my heart resonates with that idea. She points out that a major upheaval happens about every five hundred years in the church. In other words, we’re due. We just can’t continue in the splintered, contentious fashion that we now tolerate. Who is for Paul, who is for Apollos, and who is for Jesus?** The world has changed since Martin Luther nailed a paper to a cathedral door to ask for a discussion. Thousands of discussions are taking place every minute on social media with no moderator whatsoever, and in the church, we have no leader. Pope Francis? Jerry Falwell, Jr.?

Sarah Bessey writes by telling stories, and every one is soaked with her passionate love for Jesus. I read this book like drinking a life-giving elixir. I consumed it. To paraphrase Roberta Flack, I felt she’d found my letters and read each one out loud. If I had time, I would go right back to the beginning and read it again. She pulls out one topic after another and encourages the reader to examine it honestly, leading us to be courageous by telling her own life’s stories. She has also been a part of different kinds of churches in different parts of the continent, and she has drawn truth and beauty from each experience, but she now realizes that she cannot fully assent to the beliefs of any one church. No one is right about everything, after all, but neither is everyone else wrong about everything. You may as well tell the truth about how you feel and what you think, rather than making yourself believe something in order to please someone else, because when it comes right down to it, if they don’t love you because you disagree, what do you gain by hiding the truth? The only one who matters already knows what you think, and he can take it. You may not agree with Sarah Bessey on every issue—or, like me, you may not know what you think about some of them—but she will take you gently through all of the things that need sorting out in your heart and mind.

I do believe that the future is hopeful for me and for the church, but I believe just as firmly that there is suffering ahead. The Lord has used my pain to force me to change, to let go of things I held dear, to work harder for the kingdom, to forgive and to love. As Switchfoot’s new album*** says, the wound is where the light shines through, where the grace pours in, where he reaches in to heal. Be courageous! Lean into the pain and love well.

______________

It was not my intent to hurt anyone with this post, but rather to tell my story so that others who have been deeply wounded can find comfort here. Scripture quotes are from the ESV Bible.

*There is a reference for this! Ephesians 6: 6 & 7.

**Riffing on 1 Corinthians 1:12.

***It always come down to Switchfoot, doesn’t it? I am here freely making inferences from the song “Where the Light Shines Through” and the album of the same name.

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