Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review: We Will Feast

Kendall Vanderslice grew up loving church and loving the way that eating brought people together. She believed that there was a connection between food and theology and finally found them co-existing at a Massachusetts dinner church. Kendall traveled the country from Texas to Michigan to see how people come together to worship and eat. 

We Will Feast is not prescriptive; Kendall visits a variety of congregations and cautions that this kind of church does not work for everyone. But she does wonder how we bring people into church who feel uncomfortable with traditional practices. "For those who have grown up in a church, the code and language of that specific setting are learned unconsciously. But for those who have not developed such a training, stepping into a community can be awkward or even painful. Holding a worship service over a simple meal subverts all expectations of behavior...It can challenge a church to use the Eucharist not only as a sign of God's abundance but also as a practice that uses God's abundance to bring together men and women from a variety of social backgrounds."

Every two months or so, I invite the women of my congregation to come to my house for dinner. We answer some discussion questions, but mostly we enjoy enchiladas or lasagna together. I've realized that people are much more likely to open up about their lives over a meal. It's easier to really discuss something when we know that there is time to take a sip of coffee or break off a piece of bread and consider our answers. Coming around a communion table or a table in a church basement gives us the opportunity to really see and hear each other in a way we can't when we say that we're doing fine while running out the door.

The Bible tells us not just to come together once a week to have a service and then go home. It tells us to live together, and that includes sitting around a table to eat pizza on a Friday night or share a crockpot of soup after we take Communion together. We Will Feast is crucial reading for those of us who attend church. It asks us to think about how we welcome people and how we can include the lonely, the questioning, and people who don't look or think like us in our feasting.

We Will Feast
Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God
By Kendall Vanderslice
Eerdmans May 2019
176 pages
Received book as part of launch team

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Review: The Paragon Hotel

Alice James is fleeing across the country. She makes polite small talk with her fellow travelers on a train to Oregon, while covertly nursing the bullet wound in her side. While she might fool some people, Max can tell right away that something is wrong and she needs a safe place. The porter takes a chance on Alice by bringing her to the Paragon Hotel, the only all-black hotel in Portland. Some of its residents are fascinated by Alice and her ability to instantly change her story and her personality; but others are wary of her presence. They have good reason to suspect white people: the Ku Klux Klan is on the rise in Portland and even the Paragon may not be safe for long.

If you read and enjoyed Lyndsay Faye's book Jane Steele, you already know that she has an uncanny ability to tell a dark story that is also ridiculously fun. She makes the same magic happen in The Paragon Hotel. This is a book about people who had no power and no rights in the 1920s--women, people of color, and gay and transexual people. While modern Oregon is seen as somewhat of a liberal mecca, it was a difficult place in the early twentieth century. In fact, is is the only state that banned black people from living there and it had one of the highest concentrations of Klan members in the United States. The Paragon is based on a real hotel in Portland, which was the only place for people of color to safely stay during their time in the city.

As a reader, you are going to be worried about these characters on almost every page. But you are also going to embark on a colorful, joyous adventure with larger-than-life characters. And at certain moments, it does feel like too much. Surely not every single person can be so charming, so fascinating, and have such an unexpected backstory. As you read along, it feels almost as if you are watching a movie because the stakes are always so high and the characters are always bright and compelling. Lyndsay Faye has written another story you won't want to put down.


The Paragon Hotel
By Lyndsay Faye
G.P. Putnam's Sons January 2019
432 pages
From the library

Friday, April 26, 2019

Audiobook Mini-Reviews

Aiden wakes up to the shock of his life: he is inside someone else's body. He is told that tonight a murder will occur. It is up to him to figure out who will commit the murder. If he can correctly name the killer, he will be released from this English estate. If not, the entire cycle will start again tomorrow with Aiden in the body of a new guest.

I am in the minority on this one. Many readers loved this very unique story, but I found it incredibly frustrating. Because Aiden bounces around from one person to the next, it is difficult to remember who is who and next to impossible to really care about any of the characters. In the last bit of the book, the reason for Aiden being there is revealed, along with the framework that holds him on the estate and sends him into the different people. While that was the most interesting part of the story for me, it is quickly case aside in favor of getting back on the merry-go-round of discovering who committed the murder.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
By Stuart Turton
Tantor Media September 2018
Narrated by James Cameron Stewart
17 hours


Assistant extraordinaire Emily Charleston has left New York City with her husband and now works as an image consultant to the famous and extravagantly wealthy. Lately she finds herself missing her work at Runway magazine, especially when her pop star clients keep turning to younger consultants. Her friend Miriam introduces her to Karolina, a former model turned senator's wife whose life has imploded over a faked DUI, and Emily sees a golden opportunity to turn someone's life around and ascend back to the top of her game.

I have to confess I chose this book specifically because Laura Benanti was the narrator. She is a Tony-award winning actress who most of you know as the actress who plays Melania Trump on the Colbert Show, but I will always remember as the actress who shone brighter than even the great Patti Lupone in Gypsy. When she is narrating as Karolina, you can hear shades of her work on the First Lady. Benanti takes a somewhat predictable novel about the extravagances of the wealthy and choosing between your children and your work and elevates it to a fun listening experience.


When Life Gives You Lululemons
The Devil Wears Prada #3
By Lauren Weisberger
Narrated by Laura Benanti
10 hours, 14 minutes

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Review: The Far Field

Shalini had a complicated relationship with her mother. When she dies, Shalini is devastated and angry. Uncertain about what to do next, she decides to travel to Kashmir to track down Bashir Ahmed. Ahmed was a traveling salesman whose visits seemed to bring her mother rare moments of happiness. But the towns and villages of Kashmir are very different from her privileged upbringing in Bangalore. Shalini doesn't know if she wants to be involved in the complicated relationships and secrets that permeate the Ahmed home, but she may not have a choice.

It is almost difficult to write about The Far Field, because it encompasses so many things. It's a story about the shift from naive childhood to adulthood, about grief and finding the edges of your knowledge of someone you loved and lost. It's a story about privilege and poverty and politics, and realizing that you know so little about the world around you. In the opening pages, Shalini tells readers that "I am thirty years old and that is nothing." After that, the book moves in parallel timelines, as she remembers growing up with her unpredictable, vibrant, sometimes cruel mother, and tries to learn more about her mother and herself in the present.

The book is beautifully written. It's hard to believe that this novel is Madhuri Vijay's debut, because she reveals human emotion and failing so well, while simultaneously making you feel that you are really walking narrow mountain pathways or wandering through the streets of Bangalore. The Far Field is an intimate and sprawling story at the same time, as Shalini comes to terms with the loss of her mother and learns what her place is in a tumultuous, uncertain world.

The Far Field
By Madhuri Vijay
Grove Press January 2019
432 pages
From the library

Friday, April 12, 2019

Review: The Bird King

Fatima lives an unusual life as a concubine to the sultan. While her body and decisions are not her own, she does live a life of privilege in the palace and has plenty of time to spend with her best friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker. Hassan is gay and Fatima is the only Circassian who lives in the palace, so they don't fit in with the rest of the court. They spend their free time exploring the world through the magic doors Hassan can draw onto his maps. When the Spanish Inquisition arrives at the palace, things change very quickly. The sultan is willing to make sacrifices to keep the peace, starting with his mapmaker who is seen as a sorcerer by the Inquisitors. Fatima and Hassan escape the palace, searching for a place where they will be safe and accepted.

The Bird King is unlike anything I have read before. The magic in this story is apparent on every page, but its true focus is the friendship between Fatima and Hassan. While both of them will have romance in this story, their relationship is the heart of this story. It's wonderful to read about friends and see how the two of them support and fail each other in new and dangerous circumstances. There is a push and pull throughout between a blind faith and the work of putting one foot in front of the other, between kindness at your own expense and the expectation of pain and betrayal.

Every few chapters, I could point out another place where the story could have diverted and revealed the history of a relationship or a certain kind of magic. But the 440 pages are devoted instead to Fatima and Hassan's search for a mythical island where they will finally be free from the Inquisition. Fatima is certain that with Hassan's gift for creating places and helping them to get there, they can reach the island they have read about and live under the protection of the Bird King.

When I knew the end of the story was coming, I found that I was sad that my time with Fatima, Hassan, and all of the other characters was coming to an end. Surely this is the mark of a well-told tale, but G. Willow Wilson can also take this as my suggestion that she write another book set in this world!

The Bird King
By G. Willow Wilson
Grove Press March 2019
440 pages
Read via Netgalley

Friday, March 29, 2019

Reading for Sick Days

This is what my bedside table has looked like for the past few weeks.


I think I now own partial stock in Kleenex, my husband and I are familiar to all the late-night cashiers at the local pharmacies, and I have had my first chest x-ray and inhaler.

When we are in our most hectic days, having a few days to sit in bed and read sounds pretty nice. But in my experience, it doesn't really work that way. The kids are sick when you are, so there is less time spent resting in your own bed and more time spent checking temperatures and rocking them back to sleep. Instead of reading through a glorious pile of books during your sick days, it's much more likely you fall asleep in the middle of a page and then wake up to cough all over your book.

But all hope is not lost! Just because someone in your house has been sick for the last five weeks doesn't mean that you can't do any reading at all.

Here are my tried and true tricks for reading when you and everyone you know has fallen victim to the flu/cold/stomach bug.

1) Put The Nonfiction Down
I know, that giant biography looks really interesting, but you probably can't hack it. I certainly couldn't focus on the intricacies of Benjamin Dweyer's grammar guide or the ins and outs of paleontology in The Dinosaur Artist while I was hacking up a lung. Just put it aside--it will still be there when you feel better.

2) Go Short!
Sick days are the perfect time to tackle the novellas or short stories you've been meaning to read. If you have twenty minutes of attention before the cough medicine kicks in, that's a whole story down! I finally read the first of the Murderbot Diaries while I was sick this time and it was perfect.

3) Stay Familiar
Now is not the moment to start the new series you keep hearing about or finally learn about quantum physics. Sick reading is the time to stay familiar, with characters, authors, and stories you already know. This is your moment to pick up a sequel, re-read a favorite story, or let your inner fan out. Personally, I read Leia, Princess of Alderaan, which was perfect because I already knew some of the characters but I also learned more about our favorite princess/general.


Being sick is the worst. Don't beat yourself up if your reading falls by the wayside, just like the stack of mail on the table and the dishes in the sink. The books will be waiting for you when you're finally germ-free.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Review: If, Then

Clearing, Oregon is a typical kind of town. Ginny and Mark are a couple trying to find time for their marriage in between raising their son and their busy careers as a surgeon and a biologist. Down the street, Samara mourns the death of her mother and wonders if she should go back to her old life or follow in her mother's footsteps. Cass rocks her baby to sleep and wonders when she will have the time or mental strength to get back to work on her PhD. One ordinary day, each of the neighbors sees a vision of life as it might be: a life where they are married to different people, where a deceased parent is still alive, where they have a second baby, or a life where a terrible catastrophe destroys their neighborhood and impacts everyone who lives there. What are these visions? Are they seeing possible futures or whimsical dreams of what could be? Will their actions prevent these events or make them reality?

If, Then is a story that can be classified as sci-fi or magical realism, but it focuses not on the how or why of these visions, but their impact on the people who have them. In fact, it is sometimes difficult to tell which version is real and which is a possible version of events. It is an inescapable part of life to wonder how our lives would be different if we had made different choices and Kate Hope Day lovingly renders the pain and the potential of these musings. But this isn't a book where the plot meanders for the sake of character development; the choices that these characters make change their lives and families in big ways. This is one of those stories where it's easy to convince yourself you will read just a few more pages, only to find that you've been reading for an entire hour.

I really enjoyed this debut novel. The author makes the reader really care for each character as we jump from one potential timeline to another, all the while wondering if Ginny, Mark, Samara, and Cass will be able to find fulfillment and happiness. I will certainly be picking up whatever Kate Hope Day writes next.

If, Then
By Kate Hope Day
Random House March 2019
272 pages
Read via Netgalley