Serena, by Ron Rash

Serena“Just remember you were warned,” said his Boston hostess before she introduced Pemberton to Serena. Despite her words, he was instantly smitten. Serena was the strongest woman he had ever known, and she was eager to join him in western North Carolina, leaving the sophistication of Boston society for the rugged life of a mountain logging operation.

Her father had been a lumber baron in Colorado, so Serena had grown up on horseback and could handle everything to do with the business as well as any grizzled old hand in the camp. She trained an eagle to take care of the snake problem, and the men grew accustomed to seeing her upright form riding the mountainside with the huge bird perched on her arm. When Pemberton was confronted by the father of a young woman who was carrying his child, he dispatched him neatly with a knife blade quite openly on the train platform. Serena approved, and from that point, the pair of them continued to remove any obstacles that got in the way of their plan to denude the entire mountainside, then the entire state, and eventually, the entire country of Brazil.

I recently decided to get better acquainted with contemporary Southern—and especially North Carolina—authors, since William, Flannery, Eudora, Walker and I are old friends. Ron Rash is new to me, even though he is a well-known resident of our state. The first two pages of this novel are brutal, and both Pemberton and Serena are repugnant. Since I am a character-driven reader, it was tough to get past this shocking opening scene. Also, as a rural resident, I am happily surrounded by green woodlands, so when the protagonists view a beautiful poplar as just so many board feet, it is nauseating, just as the author intended. However, there are some heroes to be found, and the pace of the plot and the reader’s increasing desperation to find someone to stop this woman keep the pages turning. There is certainly not a moment of boredom, and last third of the book runs at breakneck speed. Even the secondary characters are often compelling and sometimes reminded me of the cast of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Rash’s use of one logging crew as a sort of Appalachian Greek chorus provided a bit of comic relief.

As a North Carolinian, it was mind-bending to read about the Biltmore House as an actual residence, not the museum that we know today. I had no idea that logging companies were racing to clear-cut our beautiful Smoky Mountains before the federal government could establish national forests. Conservation and unchecked greed are the larger themes here, but readers will never forget Serena, one of the most evil women ever to dwell on the printed page. A contemporary classic.

Disclaimer: I read a colleague’s (signed!) 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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The Ragamuffin Gospel, by Brennan Manning

Ragamuffin GospelFormer Catholic priest, husband, father, alcoholic, divorcé, and writer, Brennan Manning led a full life. Despite the suffering he endured, most of his books focus on the overwhelming love of God and his grace toward us sinners. Those of us who, like Manning, were raised Catholic need regular reminders of God’s love, since this is not the message we were fed as children. Guilt for our sins and a strong sense of unworthiness are much more likely to keep the kids in line. I cannot count the number of times that something happened to me and my mother said, “God is punishing you.” And she truly believed it.

The Ragamuffin Gospel is considered to be Manning’s magnum opus, although I loved Abba’s Child more. I reviewed it here. However, many famous people identified strongly as ragamuffins. Rich Mullins, in particular, named his musical group The Ragamuffin Band. The front cover of the latest edition of the book is one of Mullins’ album covers. Michael W. Smith wrote the foreword. So, in the almost thirty years since its publication, this small volume has worked itself into the music and conversation of the Christian community, even in ways we do not see.

A few years ago, David and I were talking about current issues and whether or not we considered them sinful. We were in the car on a long trip, so we had hours of uninterrupted time, and at the end of it, we came to the uncomfortable conclusion that we were quite willing to consider our own sins as no big deal, maybe not even sins, whereas those activities toward which we were not even tempted were obviously heinous sins. Since then, I have come to believe that most of us—believers and unbelievers alike— think that way. Or, to go even further, once we’ve forgiven ourselves for all of our own sins, we hasten to erase guilt for everything everywhere, just in case someone turns the spotlight on us.

Manning does not take that approach. Rather, he identifies with other sinners because he is aware of his own sin. For example, “You steal cupcakes? Yes, that is a sin. Me, I stole cookies. But take heart! Jesus forgives both cupcake and cookie thieves.” We are ragamuffins, with nothing to offer God, and yet he loves us as we are. His favorite verse in the Bible is Luke 15:20, in which the prodigal son’s father runs down the road to meet him, arms outstretched, before the son has bathed or even had time to apologize. Beautiful.

My favorite chapter in this book was “The Second Call.” He says that every spiritual person, somewhere between the ages of thirty and sixty, will go through a crisis of faith that will crash them back almost to nothing, only to begin “the second journey,” learning about Jesus all over again. For me, I was right smack in the middle of that age range, and I found this chapter to be a startling revelation that this was a common experience. Manning writes that we move through years of suffering and searching this second time and emerge wiser, though more wrinkled. We finally accept that no one will ever truly understand us, and we are far less likely to care about what other people think.

That’s a useful result for Brennan, since he was constantly barraged with accusations of universalism and cheap grace. Not that his critics are completely wrong, since his theology can be a bit loose at times, but dry tracts of systematic theology never made the wounded whole. For those of us who need reminding that God loved us before we ever did anything good or bad, The Ragamuffin Gospel can help to heal the sin-sick soul.

You may find some comfort here.

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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Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

Little Fires EverywhereShaker Heights was founded on rules and order, and Elena Richardson is one of its most fervent native daughters. From the time she was a little girl, she had planned her life carefully, firm in her beliefs of right and wrong, always following what she thought was correct. She married well, had four children—two boys and two girls, maintained a small-town journalistic career that allowed her to put her family first, and made sure that she and her family could hold up their heads as models of success and respectability. When Mia Warren and her teenaged daughter, Pearl, arrived in town, Mrs. Richardson generously allowed them to live in her rental property at reduced rates. Nothing warmed her heart more than to do good deeds for the deserving poor.

Mia is an artist. Whenever she gets an idea for a project, she settles into a town, takes photographs, turns them into the vision in her head, ships them off to her agent, and packs up again. This time, though, she has promised Pearl that they would stay longer for her sake. She is surprised and uneasy when her daughter seems to fall in love with the Richardsons’ wealthy, bourgeois lifestyle. They have all the material things and experiences of privileged teens. Pearl is even thrilled to watch The Jerry Springer show on the couch with them every afternoon. The Richardsons are teaching Pearl to be everything that Mia never wanted.

Under the polished surface of Shaker Heights’ upstanding community, though, there are secrets, and as a journalist, Mrs. Richardson has the means to ferret them out. It is not right, after all, that the person one helped out so long ago does not consider herself to be in one’s debt forever. It is not right that newcomers, and especially foreigners, should believe that they have the same rights as one of the fine citizens of Shaker Heights. However, even though Mrs. Richardson can measure out her breakfast cereal every day, she cannot get a grip on her vexing youngest daughter, Izzy, who seems to be completely dazzled by that bohemian artist, Mia.

Celeste NgCeleste Ng writes a story of two generations in a rigid little world colliding with outside ideas and sojourners. Mothers and children are locked together with iron bonds that they simultaneously tighten and push against. Izzy is struggling to break free of her mother’s control and her siblings’ scorn, but her rebellion is limited to a young girl’s resources. Those resources turn out to be incredibly powerful. The suffocating community produces tragic decisions and secrets kept locked inside. There is no redemption here, no confession or forgiveness. As Mia tells one of the teens, there is just pain that you must carry.

I loved this novel for two reasons. The first is that I adore deep explorations of the artistic process. I have taken enough art classes to know that I cannot draw, and I have struggled through enough music lessons to know that I am not gifted. However, I am perfectly happy to be a devotee. Stories of artists passionate about their craft entrance me, so Mia’s evolution as a photographer, and then as someone who used photography to create meaningful works of art, was absorbing and fascinating. I rejoiced with every hint of her success.

Secondly, though, I empathize so closely with anyone trying to be free of others’ control. As a compliant child, I sometimes feel as if I have spent my adult life trying to escape the Mrs. Richardsons of the world, breaking through the walls of all those little boxes. And there are so many boxes! There were scenes in the novel where I could barely breathe, waiting for someone—anyone!— to fight back and triumph.

Although the ending is realistically complicated, there is hope that everyone has grown, and that the small steps down a new road— a road that was not even on the map before— will continue until each person finds freedom: freedom to let go, freedom to change, freedom to burn it all down and start again.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, although it is available right now. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly ElegyJ.D.’s family may have lived in Ohio, but they never lost their Kentucky roots. Jackson County, Kentucky, was deep in the hills and hollers, where Scots-Irish descendants were poor, clannish, and tough. Farming was impossible, and mining was miserable, so when the steel mills up north were booming and the owners traveled down to Kentucky for cheap labor, often whole families and communities moved from their mountains into small mill towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania, transplanting their culture along with their workers.

Vance’s mother was a drug addict who introduced her children to a new father figure every year, so J.D. and his siblings and half-siblings depended on Mamaw and Papaw for stability. His grandmother was the rock in a swirl of violence and addiction, a source of unconditional love and support. At the same time, she was tough as nails and cussed a blue streak. She thought it was hilarious when her littlest grandchildren imitated her horrible language. His uncles taught him what it was to be a man, which included treating women like trash. When other men treated the women in your own family poorly, though, there were no limits to the required revenge. Feuds were honorable, and education was for rich folks.

Breaking out of this insular world was difficult, but with his grandmother’s help, J.D. made it to college, and then even to Yale Law School. He saw that the people who had happy marriages and successful careers did not share his culture’s values or lifestyle, and he was thoughtful enough to want to figure out why. Hillbilly Elegy is an examination of how one group of people can destroy themselves, clinging to defensive habits that don’t translate well into the twenty-first century, being misunderstood by public policy makers and then hurt by the policies that are meant to help them, and escaping a hopeless life with alcohol and drug addiction, which only serve to exacerbate an already imbedded tendency to violence.

Merriam-Webster defines an elegy as “a song or poem expressing sorrow or lamentation, especially for one who is dead.” Vance hopes to bring this huge, white, working-class population out into public view, since it is largely misunderstood by the rest of the country. The Scots-Irish immigrant culture stretches from the hills of Alabama and Georgia, up through the Appalachians into New York state. They do not identify at all with the white elite in the Northeast and are often ignored by pollsters and other observers of American culture. Although they had originally been hardworking people, generations of despair have led them to dependence on government assistance, even when work is available.

I was confused at first by the term “Scots-Irish,” until my brother, who understands All Things Historical, explained that our Irish or Scottish ancestors are not part of this group. Our Irish Catholic great-grandfather moved from the Republic of Ireland to New England, where most of his fellow countrymen settled. Our Scottish grandmother did the same. The people of Appalachia are Protestants from Northern Ireland, originally settled there from Scotland, having an entirely different culture from the Catholics in the south of Ireland.

David and I lived in eastern Kentucky for five years or so, and the initial realization that the population is uniformly white is jarring to those of us who are used to living in the deep South. We were also startled by the iron-clad class division. Once you leave the small towns and travel east into the mountains, the poverty seems universal and unrelenting. Since the hollers are barely accessible, there is no infrastructure to help businesses to reach the rest of the country. As outsiders, we had friends among the missionaries who moved there to help the native people with economic development, and we were witness to a steady stream of politicians and activists who would put on their best folksy act during a photo op on a rickety front porch. Whether they truly cared about the people or only cared about their own careers is debatable. Nothing ever changed.

Hillbilly Elegy Coming HomeJ.D. Vance is currently having an on-again/ off-again conversation about running for public office. He does have a unique perspective on many issues of the working class, such as welfare dependence, employment, health care, addiction, and education. Most of this book contains his fascinating memoir, but the last thirty or so pages present his conclusions about his culture, and even how his “outsider” wife has helped him to recognize and change his own childhood patterns. He has an important story for all Americans to hear.

I passed Hillbilly Elegy on to my husband when I was finished, and our library system has dozens of copies in every possible format that stay completely checked out. In the meantime, Ron Howard plans to direct a movie based on the book. Highly recommended.

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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Wishtree, by Katherine Applegate

WishtreeRed has lived in his town for many generations—two hundred and sixteen rings, as a matter of fact. He is a red oak tree, and every Wishing Day, all the townspeople come out to cover his branches with scraps of paper or cloth onto which they’ve written their dearest wishes. His limbs and hollows are home to many creatures, including squirrels, opossums, and his crow friend, Bongo. One night, a boy sneaks up to Red and carves into his bark one word that sets the townspeople astir: LEAVE.

The word is directed at the new girl, Samar, and her family. Red and Bongo have come to know Samar as a gentle, quiet girl, and they’ve cooked up all kinds of crazy schemes to get Stephen, the boy next door, to befriend her. Before they can achieve happiness in the neighborhood, though, the owner of the property decides that she has to cut Red down. She just can’t stand to see the hateful word any longer.

Applegate is the author of the award-winning The One and Only Ivan, and she brings that same gift for animal tales to this new novel for elementary-age readers. The sweetness and humor of the writing both ease and highlight the serious and poignant theme. All skunks, for example, are named after smells, such as RosePetal and HotButteredPopcorn. The possums are called by their greatest fears, such as BigHairySpiders and Flashlight. Poor Flashlight wants to help, but he has a hard time controlling his “play dead” instinct. Red speaks in platitudes much of the time, since he is supposed to be dispensing the wisdom of the ages, and although Bongo acts exasperated with him, at the end, she admits that it is endearing. While the wild creatures continue with their busy lives, the injustice of the hatred aimed at Samar’s family and the destruction of this ancient tree move toward a dreaded conclusion.

This novel is a wonderful starting point for discussions of tolerance and kindness on a child’s level. Applegate brings children (and this reader) to the brink of what they can bear emotionally, but—spoiler alert!— they will not be traumatized by the ending. A colleague of mine used this story as a family read-aloud with wonderful results, except that Mom sometimes had a hard time reading. Other families and classrooms can use the book as a non-threatening way to deal with differences while children are still young enough to be open in their minds and hearts.

Very highly recommended.

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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When Dimple Met Rishi, by Sandhya Manon

When Dimple Met RishiDimple couldn’t believe that her Indian parents had allowed her to attend the summer Insomnia Con at San Francisco State University. Perhaps all her years of arguing with them had finally convinced them that girls could attend college in order to pursue a career, not just to seek a husband. Whatever the reason, here she was, basking in the sunshine at SFSU, ready to build her dream app and win the competition. Suddenly, her daydream was interrupted by a male voice saying, “Hello, future wife. I can’t wait to get started on the rest of our lives!” She threw her cup of Starbucks at him.

While Dimple had been rebelling against her parents’ expectations all her life, Rishi had been dedicated to more than fulfilling his. As the oldest son, he felt that it was his obligation to carry on his culture’s traditions, the old ways that he loved and honored. Although he was an artist and had no interest in computer science, he planned to go to MIT and succeed in business. And although he also had no interest in coding or creating websites, he agreed to go to Insomnia Con to meet his chosen bride, the daughter of his parents’ old friends.

As Dimple worked to recover from her parents’ deception, Rishi struggled to understand that Dimple had never heard of him. While they are still reeling, they are both forced to move forward in the competition and to cooperate with the other students who have traveled from all over the country, hoping to win the prestigious award and the chance to market their invention. These two children of immigrants find their worldviews challenged by this six-week stint away from their families and their comfortable communities. Fortunately, they are both super cute.

This fast-paced, romantic, coming-of-age story is as delightful as its cover. Even the secondary characters go through life changes as adolescents try their wings in this pre-college experience. There is a bit of off-page sex. Menon explores the values and challenges of cultural traditions, class distinctions, parent-child relationships, and being true to oneself while acknowledging that parents are sometimes unexpectedly wise. If you’re looking for a teen novel with, as they say, “all the feels,” this is it. Recommended.

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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The World Jesus Knew, by Marc Olson

World Jesus KnewHow could they light lamps in the Bible if there was no electricity? Why were there Roman soldiers when they were in Israel? Did Jesus read the Bible, too?

Christian parents want to read scripture to their children, but we live in such different times that the New Testament is often hard to understand. If we want to reap the greatest benefits from our reading, a broad understanding of Middle Eastern culture in the first century is a big boost. This large-format volume, subtitled A Curious Kid’s Guide to Life in the First Century, is thoroughly illustrated and directed to upper elementary and middle school kids, although adults may find new nuggets of information here, too. Each chapter is a two-page spread explaining one topic, such as first-century clothing, the Jewish calendar, the Temple, crucifixion, the role of women, occupations, and much more. An introduction with a timeline and map sets the stage, and the small font throughout packs in a lot of text. Despite the serious subject matter, Marc Olson writes in everyday language with even a hint of humor at times. This book has been chosen as a Junior Library Guild selection. Highly recommended.

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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