What I Read | JANUARY 2018

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The Queen’s Thief Series (The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, Thick as Thieves) by Megan Whalen Turner

This is my go-to comfort series, and I reread them when two of my friends in Greece decided to read them as well.  We literally had parties where we talked about the books for hours and fell all over ourselves squealing about Eugenides’ perfection.  They are children’s adventure stories with a political backstory that becomes increasingly important throughout the series, and seriously.  Eugenides is the embodiment of my Ideal Fictional Hero and I cannot even hold it together any time he does anything.

51IpIExqbQL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Pegasus by Robin McKinley

This is an unfortunately cut-off first book in a series that I assume is leading to a human/pegasus romance that I…was super into??  McKinley’s ability to create lush fantastical and creative worlds is very evident here, and I’m really disappointed that there seems to be little possibility of a sequel, just as the political aspect of things were heating up!  I wanna know if humans and pegasi can coexist when led by representatives of their species that can speak telepathically!

6a016760e4a142970b01676103f988970bThe Moon-Spinners by Mary Stewart

This was one of my favorite childhood movies, so I was curious how the novel that inspired the Disney movie held up.  While mostly similar in plot, Stewart’s novel feels more grownup, to the point that I believed a devastating plot twist that fortunately turned even twistier.  A perfect book for those of you who like murder mysteries set on Greek isles!

516RKT4NIAL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr

The final conclusion that Rohr reaches “Everything is holy” feels incredibly satisfying and encouraging after a deep dive into the relationship of the Trinity (both amongst themselves and with humans) and how that informs all of life.

2337457The Art of Crossing Cultures by Craig Storti

I read this as I was flying back from Greece, and it was incredibly validating to see my cultural experiences laid out on the page before me.  It helped me to see what I did well and what I did poorly while trying to adapt to a foreign culture, and I HIGHLY recommend it to anyone considering living in a country not their own.

a328d7c9caf2857e082fe981af6df5b8Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I read this because *ahem* it was a significant plot point in the amazing television show Black Sails, and I’m glad I did.  It’s a bit like the book of Proverbs, and there were quite a few bits of wisdom that I really took to heart, including this one:  “But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human – however imperfectly – and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.”

31207017Love Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

Half teenage romance, half social commentary, I didn’t like this book as much as I should have.  Everything felt a little too perfect, and I couldn’t help wanting a bit more grittiness in a novel about hate acts and terrorist attacks.  But it’s a fun quick read, and well worth a day’s read.

 

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Faith without Doubt is Not Faith

A few days ago I had two conversations that helped me see what has changed in my spiritual life recently.  In the first conversation, I spoke with a young woman who has just moved to Greece and has decided to try to get a visa to stay.  I had to bite my tongue in order not to douse her excitement with “yeah, I thought that too” cynicism.  Later, I spoke with a woman who spent the summer in the same situation I did, waiting for a visa that didn’t work out.  It was hugely encouraging to not feel alone, to vent and laugh together over our mutual frustrations.

In the midst of these conversations, I realized that this visa process cost me my spiritual naivety.  Because my initial student visa was easy to get, I assumed that everything would work out for me if I kept living in Greece.  God wanted me here, so paperwork couldn’t get in the way, right?  Yes, it could.  Now, as I look ahead to a job that hinges upon 1) fundraising and 2) a visa, I find myself incredibly lethargic.  Where I once met these obstacles with excitement, now I’m exhausted.

But what hit me was this:  faith is not the absence of doubt, it’s believing in the midst of doubt (in much the same way courage is not the absence of fear, it’s acting in the midst of fear).  After all, it doesn’t take much faith to naively assume everything will work out for me.  To see my plans fail and then to attempt something similar…that takes a different kind of faith.  Something deeper, and less flashy, and more painful, but something that rests upon a more desperate hope and trust.  God took my life in an unexpected direction before…do I trust him enough to try something risky once again?

The older I get, the more I realize that my relationship with God is far more boring than anything I originally experienced.  This year I’ve felt pretty emotionally distanced from him.  But I think there’s something really beautiful about every little connection we’ve had, because I don’t take them for granted any more.  I’m no longer seeking youth group conferences of ecstatic emotionalism.  I just want a quiet, heavy moment of assurance that I am loved and that God has a plan for me.  I had one of those during my conversations, and it helped me to choose faith, in the midst of doubt, once more.

 

What I Read | DECEMBER 2017

22-secret-history.nocrop.w710.h2147483647The Secret History by Donna Tartt

If you like stories about pretentious young adults screwing up their lives, you will love this book.  Luckily, I do and I did.  A small group of classicist students try to recreate a bacchanal, which leads to a string of murders and lies that grows beyond their control.  It’s engrossing and horrible and wonderful, and I’m now going to have to read everything else Tartt has written.

817iFfLhJ+LThe Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

After a lukewarm reaction to this movie ages ago, I was happy to discover that I like the book quite a bit more.  It’s relational sci-fi, which isn’t too common of a genre, but should be.  In a Benjamin Button-esque way, I liked seeing Clare and Henry meet up at various ages and times, first as child and adult, meeting in the middle, then growing apart in the opposite direction.  Although it plays with a few sci-fi ideas, my favorite was the idea was compulsive time traveling as a genetic disorder attempting to be cured.  This book was fun, sad, and romantic – a great holiday read!

61VBnB-U+JL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To by Lillian Daniel

This woman is a spitfire, and I loved it.  This book is all about what’s on the tin – she’s a liberal pastor who embraces people of all kinds of lives, and she’s tired of apologizing for all the evils the church has committed over the centuries, and that some continue to commit today.  She makes a compelling case that we live in a new age where young people have grown up outside of the church and need to hear WHY it’s worth considering (because of community, and a connection with the sacred, and a calling to higher, deeper life) instead of hearing all the things other people have done poorly.

51-RupZrb3LStrong Women, Soft Hearts by Paula Rinehart

I bought this years ago, and I wish I’d read it then.  It’s an excellent book, but a lot of its themes of forgiveness, vulnerability, and powerlessness felt like retreads of the 12 Step work I’ve been doing for the past two years.  Still, I very much recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn how to interact assertively with the people and events that life throws at you while also remaining open despite some of those things being painful.

51W3KFEXGTL._SX281_BO1,204,203,200_Not Without My Daughter by Betty Mahmoody

Leant to me by a friend, this true story of an American woman trapped in Iran when a vacation with her Iranian husband turns into an imprisonment.  I didn’t like it at first, since her initial reaction to Iranian culture was entirely disgust, but over time it becomes apparent that this is (somewhat) influenced by her fear and anger.  She does wind up finding people she enjoys or empathizes with, which makes the story take an interesting turn because she fears she will grow complacent and abandon her plan to escape back to America.  Really interesting book, but it did unfortunately throw fuel on the fire of my “you can never know if the person you marry will drastically change!!” fear.

 

What I Read | NOVEMBER 2017

Wow, is it hard to go from working at a library to living in a foreign country.  From overabundance to scarcity!  Since my time is ending in Greece, I’ve decided to actual tackle the shelf of To Be Read books that I kept passing over.  This is actually pretty satisfying, though the going is slower.

Novel_the_blind_assassin_coverThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

This book was immediately intriguing, flashing between an old woman remembering her past and an at-first ambiguous meeting of lovers discussing science fiction plots.  It’s a dense novel, delving into generational family relationships, complications, and regrets.  Because it’s Atwood, the story consistently reveals the underbelly of what it means to be a woman during the early 1900s.  The middle dragged a little for me, but the beginning and end were totally engrossing.

71epnYVGumLThe King Must Die by Mary Renault

A historical novel focused on the life of mythical Theseus, I was ALL about this book.  It covers only the first half of his life (I accidentally read the second book so long ago I was writing full reviews).  Theseus travels to Athens and then Crete, where he lives in the Palace of Knossos (I WENT THERE) and survives by becoming a champion bull-leaper.  Renault is a master at creating believable history out of mythology, and I am continually impressed by how she allows events to unfold in such a way that they can be read as natural events or godly interventions.  Very fun read for Greek mythology nerds!

51zEfKBgrdLAbraham by Bruce Feiler

A Jewish man goes to the Middle East to talk to leaders of the three great monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – about the man that unites them all:  Abraham.  This is an excellent book for people who like history, culture, and/or theology, delving into sacred texts, oral traditions, and how people have twisted stories to suit their purposes throughout time.

220px-The-lost-city-zThe Lost City of Z by David Grann

A modern day journalist ventures into the Amazon in search of a mythical city and the man who disappeared while seeking it.  It’s more of a biography than a travel memoir, but Colonel Fawcett is a fascinating man.  I loved reading about the early 1900s and all the explorers trying to survive the Amazon rainforest.  Although a lot of it is horrific, and is portrayed as such, Fawcett himself is a man before his time, insisting upon pacifism when interacting with indigenous tribes.  So many people kept returning to the Amazon despite enormous difficulties, and this book does a wonderful job of conveying the enticing mystery that the forest creates simply by existing.

We Live in a Beautiful World

I have been watching this video several times a week for the last month.  It is a fanvid about Black Sails that presents many of the show’s most tragic scenes building in emotional intensity as a woman sings “we live in a beautiful world” louder and louder over the chaos.  I have a tendency to start accidentally crying while watching, and while I’m sure a huge amount of the emotional drive comes from being intimately acquainted with these characters, I’m sharing it here anyway.

It is the visual embodiment of my theology.

A couple years ago, I was quite obsessed with the theme of hope found in The Lord of the Rings (especially here and here), and in particular, this quote from The Two Towers:

Sam: It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.

Frodo:  What are we holding onto, Sam?

Sam:  That there’s some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.

This was particularly meaningful when I was emotionally preparing to move to Greece and to work in an anti-trafficking organization.  It was necessarily personal and a little self-centered.  I needed to find MY hope, the hope that would allow ME to choose the scary option and walk forward.

This video about Black Sails?  It’s broader.  I think it touches me so much right now because there isn’t a personal tragedy I’m working through – instead I am surrounded by other people’s tragedies.  Husbands dying, babies dying, hurricanes, white supremacists, mothers with post-partum depression, friends with undiagnosable illnesses, and enough people with anxiety and depression to remind me that for so many people, we live in a scary and overwhelming world.

And…we do.  We definitely do.  That’s why this video shows scenes of betrayal, heartbreak, violence, fear, and death.  But the thing that keeps me obsessed with this show, and with this video in particular, is that in the midst of this awfulness, there is an insistent theme that despite all this, “we live in a beautiful world.”

I think this is the most beautiful thing that Christianity offers.  Christianity says yes, this world is broken, and you are guaranteed to bleed when you brush against anyone or anything.  But Christianity says that inside that brokenness is beauty.  God created the world and it was good.  When it was broken it did not become evil, it just became a good thing broken.  And a thing that is broken can be fixed, which is exactly what God promises is happening and will someday happen in fullness.

So I cannot help but be overwhelmed by this video.  I cannot help but say, in hope, YES to the fact that we live in a beautiful world while watching destruction.  There is nothing that inspires me more than staring into something ugly and affirming the beauty that it was, is, and will become.  Christianity is a religion of paradoxes, and this is the one that touches me deepest.

The world is horrible, and we live in a beautiful world.

What I Read | MARCH 2017

Recommended books are italicized!


674749The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye

What a cute book!  I want to give this to all little kids to read as an antidote to classic fairy tales.  That is, after all, it’s entire point.  What if a princess wasn’t perfect?  Could she find love, acceptance, and joy anyway?  Of course!  This is a charming and funny book that teaches us to love ourselves as we are and wait for someone who loves all our imperfections and ordinariness.

9780141357058Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

I’m a big fan of the YA trend of delving deep into minority issues, and in this book, Niven deals with two.  In alternating chapters, we get to live in the shoes of the former fattest teenager in America as well as a young man with undiagnosed prosopagnosia.  Don’t know what that is?  I didn’t either, but reading about how he coped with the inability to recognize faces was both heartbreaking and fascinating.  I also really liked how the story juxtaposed external vs. internal “problems” and how that affects the way people react to them.

28217831Buffering by Hannah Hart

I expected this YouTuber memoir to be fairly lighthearted.  Instead, Hart actually gives her fans a glimpse into her life, even though that means covering topics like schizophrenia, foster homes, and trauma flashbacks.  That is exactly its strength, because it is uplifting and powerful to know her story: where she comes from and what she struggles with despite the outward trappings of fame and success.

Robin_Hobb_-_Assassin's_Quest_CoverAssassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb

This final book in the Assassin’s trilogy was so hard to get into, but when it all clicked…I couldn’t put it down!  Fitz’s world expands as he travels inland and into the mountains, and we get to meet more Witted folk (more of this, please!), minstrels, and DRAGONS.  The story really soared when Fitz stopped traveling solo and reunited with his friends and/or monarchs.  I need to take a tiny break from this world (they take a lot of time to read!), but I’m definitely going to return to it in Hobb’s other trilogies.

51niH6CC-pL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

I listened to the audiobook, which is quite good, but I would NEVER recommend doing so unless you have already read Stevenson’s graphic novel.  It is, after all, a story designed to be express through pictures, and a lot is lost when it’s only audible.  Through any format, it is a beautiful story of a monstrous girl who remains a monster…but finds love and community anyway.

51FJbzqwMYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist

Anyone who is a workaholic, or who simply puts a lot of their self-worth in performance, will benefit greatly from Niequist’s vulnerability.  Through a series of lovely vignettes and essays, she constantly reminds her readers (and herself):  “Your worth doesn’t come from activity.  Slow down.  Focus on relationships.  Ground yourself.”  Exactly what I needed to hear during this phase of my life.

Overcoming Doubt with Vulnerability

I’m on Step 5 of the 12 Steps, which says we “admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”  This step is about confession, obviously, but its also about the connections we form with people when we are vulnerable.  Keeping secrets is isolating, and it heightens our shame and our loneliness.  The scariest thing – revealing the worst of ourselves to another person – is our only hope.  If we risk trusting a safe person with our secrets and they still love us, well.  That is simply the best feeling in the world.

I mentioned in a previous blog post that I’ve been going through a faith crisis.  This isn’t new; I’m a doubter by nature, and every couple years I start thinking, “Am I wrong about everything?  Is there a purpose to life, is God good or even real, can anything ever change for the better?”  This time, my faith crisis began with the election of Donald Trump.

It has been so confusing for me to see Christians support a man who is explicitly racist, sexist, and xenophobic.  When people who taught me the Bible as a small child defend his actions and even give Christian defenses of his “safety” measures that seem hateful and fear-mongering to me, I just…I wonder why our beliefs are so different.  The God I believe in is more loving and grace-giving and patient than our wildest dreams.  If other people believe in a God that calls us to hunker down and keep people out in order to stay safe, who’s to say whose God is the real one?

It hasn’t helped that I am reading through the Bible chronologically, and I’m currently wading through the Exodus/Leviticus laws.  It’s a crime to kill a fellow Israelite, but if you beat your slave so badly that he or she dies, you simply have to pay a fine.  That is…God’s law?  That is not something I can stomach, and it’s been eating me inside out that some of these verses seem to support the hateful, elitist God of Trump’s “Christianity.”

I used to be able to see how the God of the Old Testament and Jesus of the New Testament went together, but right now, in the midst of confusion, anger, and sadness, I can’t see it anymore.

All of this felt immense.  I worried that I was losing my faith and that I was hating God (I am, a little).  It was suffocating me.  But then I studied Step 5, and during lunch last week, I poured everything out in front of Luciana.  She tried to encourage me, but I told her, “I’m sorry, but right now nothing you say is going to make me feel better.”  She assured me that she shared my belief in a loving God, and I said, “Maybe you’re a heathen like me.”  Finally, she suggested we share dessert and said, “It’s good to doubt.  It makes our beliefs stronger, even though it’s painful.  You’re in a really good place right now.”

I didn’t believe her, but talking to her DID make the weight on my chest ease up.  I’d told someone that I kinda sorta hated God, and she had shared dark chocolate mochi with me.  So a few days later, during a dinner to get to know my new roommate, I casually mentioned that I was going through a faith crisis.  Two days later, we went out for coffee, and she carefully said, “You know how you said you were going through a faith crisis?  I am too.”  My vulnerability had opened a door that allowed us to complain to and encourage each other.  We might have sat in adjacent bedrooms for months, not knowing that the person next door was also feeling confused and betrayed and scared for the very same reason.

Nothing is necessarily figured out for me, faith-wise.  I’m still in the middle of a period of doubt, but it no longer scares me.  I even believe that God timed things so that I would study Step 5 just when I needed it, that he isn’t annoyed by my “hating” him because he is excited for the moment when I see HIM, the real him, again, and love him even more than before.

Our fears and doubts are scary, but we make them bigger than they need to be when we keep them to ourselves.  Finding the courage to share them with others can bring relief to yourself, and sometimes, for other people who need to know that they are not alone in their own fears and doubts.

We’re not meant to live alone.  It’s only in a community of honesty and acceptance that we can grow and thrive and change, and I’m so glad that I was able to live that this past week.