…And Writers Read

As I mention a few *ahem!* times on the "Readers Write" page, I love to read. I read different kinds of books: some on the craft of writing, some geared for personal growth, classics that I might want to emulate (or not), non-fiction to learn about any of a number of things, and fiction just for the fun of reading it.

On this page, I would like to call attention to some good books: those that are new to me, as well as old favorites. I will list a few now, and update this "bookshelf" as I read (or re-read, or remember) additional titles….

Stimpson, Michelle. I Met Him in the Ladies’ Room. ML Stimpson Enterprises, 2013. This novella grabbed me right away. Kerri, the protagonist, really needs a job. Then along comes the perfect opening–except it’s at a church, and they want the applicant to be a Christian. Huh?? She knows nothing about Christianity.
I love the way Kerri throws herself into trying to truly qualify for the job rather than just faking it. Her sincere cluelessness makes her a very real, funny and charming character. And the story of her “growing into the job” is both well told and uplifting. (Added January 2014)

Dickson, Athol. January Justice (The Malcolm Cutter Memoirs). Author, Author, Inc., Laguna Niguel, CA, 2012. First, here’s the plot synopsis from Amazon.com: Reeling from his wife’s unsolved murder, Malcolm Cutter is just going through the motions as a chauffeur and bodyguard for Hollywood’s rich and famous. Then a pair of Guatemalan tough guys offer him a job. It’s an open question whether they’re patriotic revolutionaries or vicious terrorists. Either way, Cutter doesn’t much care until he gets a bomb through his window, a gangland beating on the streets of L.A., and three bullets in the chest. Now there’s another murder on Cutter’s mind. His own.
And now for my two cents: I’ve read only a few of his books, but Athol Dickson has already become one of my favorite authors. Though different in style from the others, this story did not disappoint me one bit. I really like and respect protagonist Malcolm Cutter… despite his checkered past. Tight storytelling, palpable suspense and the complex, unpredictable plot make most of the book a real page-turner. January Justice has plenty of hard-hitting action scenes for the guys, but still offers enough heart for us ladies. No major character, from Cutter himself to his admirable friends and questionable allies, are exactly as they seem. Yet, as you find out more about them, they all ring true. Dickson uses lots of detail to paint mood and setting, perhaps a touch more than necessary at times. The only place I got lost, though, was when Cutter figured out some nagging questions near the end, and I failed to follow his logic. However, that was probably because I was reading at top speed, knocking narrative details out of my way left and right. Dang it, somebody had to help Cutter try to rescue the victim–it was a matter of life and death! And now I can hardly wait for the next book in the series. (Added February 2013)

Gentry, Lynne. Reinventing Leona. Tyndale House, 2011. Okay, I’ve tried to tell my friends how hilarious this book about a pastor’s wife is… even though in the first few pages, the main character’s husband drops dead right in the pulpit one Sunday morning. That’s when I see their eyes narrow just a little, and they start edging toward the nearest exit. No, really, Gentry has the most entertaining way of showing the quirky and humorous side of situations, even tragic ones. Leona, the protagonist, finds herself thrown on her own devices, right in the middle of her grief. Her resume as a longtime pastor’s wife has little to offer the marketplace. As one aspect of her life after another crashes down around her, she scrambles to adapt. All the while she has to dodge the arrows of church members’, um, well-meant advice. The characters are real enough to touch, especially Leona, her children and her spoiled, eccentric mother. You’ll cheer for Leona and her faithful old friends… plus the new ones she finds in the most unexpected places. (Added January 2013)

Perel, Saralee. Cracked Nuts & Sentimental Journeys: Stories From a Life Out of Balance. Lexington, KY, 2012. As a collection of two- to four-page essays, this book from award-winning columnist Saralee Perel was supposed to be one I could read in small bits and pieces. But each time I sat down to read a couple of entries during a lunch break, I found myself inventing excuses to stay at the table so I could read “just one more.” I would eat slower and slower — or worse yet, keep hopping up for yet another cookie. Saralee not only admits the wackiness and flaws in her life and home, she positively exaggerates them for comic effect. At least… I hope she’s exaggerating. Hmm…. At any rate, I don’t know when I’ve laughed so hard.
But in other entries she shares, with grace and courage, gut-level feelings about both the toughest and the most tender moments of life. If you have ever lost a beloved person or pet, misunderstood your parents, been overwhelmed with love and gratitude, or endured a life-changing injury, you will find yourself in the pages.
You’ll also fall in love with Bob, Saralee’s husband who cheerfully nurtures almost any life form; Gracie, the self-appointed companion dog; and one or two psychotic cats. My advice? “Read it now.” Well, first procure a large bag of Oreos and a glass of milk. Just don’t snort the milk out your nose. Available at Saralee’s website, which is well worth visiting anyway. Or from Amazon / Barnes & Noble. (Added August 2012)

Rubart, James L.. Rooms. B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, 2010. I’m sure you have heard of people whose home “is a reflection of themselves.” Yes, but suppose each time you examined or shifted your priorities, a corresponding new room appeared in your home? What would you find in there? Stranger still, what if your very reality changed to retroactively reflect your new choices? James Rubart spins a captivating tale about software executive Micah Taylor, who inherited just such a house. Full of suspense, sometimes subtle and sometimes desperate, the story kept me guessing at every turn. Oddly, the more wacky and out-of-control Micah’s life became, the more I saw myself in him. There is a great deal of truth in this wonderfully-told piece of fiction. At its essence, it is a story of freedom. (Added August 2012)

Healy, Erin. The Promises She Keeps. Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2010. I would have bought this book just for the cover illustration. It perfectly captures the danger and suspense that the book serves up. Promise, a singer who expects to die young, wants to be remembered by people. But then she apparently starts cheating death. Can she keep doing so? Porta, a sorceress who expects to find the secret to immortality, wants power over people. So far she has power only over her son, Zack. Chase, a man with autism, carries visions and messages — while Chelsea, his twin sister, carries a lot of responsibility.
All four of their paths criss-cross as Healy weaves together seemingly unrelated threads from their pasts. Warning: while most pieces of the puzzle eventually fall into place, don’t expect all your questions to be answered. Still, I found this uncanny suspense story both touching and satisfying. (Added May 2012)

Myers, Bill. The Judas Gospel. Howard Books, New York, 2011. Once again, Bill Myers asks a “What if…” question and lets his fertile imagination go into overdrive. In this novel he asks, What if Judas Iscariot had never meant to betray Jesus, but was only trying to promote Him? Myers explores what might happen if Judas got another chance, this time to work with a young inner-city prophet in present-day Los Angeles. And this time, unlike when he followed Jesus, Judas would be allowed to use his own methods.
As with a true prophet, each one of Rachel Delacroix’s bizarre predictive dreams turn out to be accurate. Much too accurate, as far as the LAPD Homicide Division is concerned…
I’m usually a 15-minute-lunch-break reader, but as this suspenseful plot took me around twist after twist, I finally ditched everything, curled up on the patio and read the last 70 pages in one sitting. What a ride! (Added January 2012)

Dickson, Athol. The Opposite of Art. Howard Books, New York, 2011. (Novel) How do you express the ineffable? After a near-death experience, a gifted artist spends 25 years obsessively trying to paint what he saw while his heart was stopped. Supporting himself by painting masterpieces that he himself scorns, the artist works his way around the world. He desperately seeks a spiritual mentor who can help him, or at least an existing piece of art that can inspire him. His pilgrimage finally leads him to a remote desert area of the US, where the unknown threads of his past come together in a suspenseful climax that kept me turning the pages at top speed. Dickson weaves a tight story with rich symbolism, present action, flashbacks and surreal sequences all meshing perfectly. This is one of the few novels that, immediately upon finishing the last page, I wanted to re-read from the beginning. (Added December 2011)

Mallett, Jef. Frazz: Live at Bryson Elementary. Andrews McMeel, Kansas City, 2005.
AND
Mallett, Jef. 99% Perspiration. Andrews McMeel, Kansas City, 2006.
It all started when Brent sent me the link to a comic strip he had been reading online. The main character is Frazz, a young songwriter whose day job is elementary-school janitor. Besides talking with the kids about philosophy, literature and cafeteria food, he enjoys outdoor sports. Here’s the clincher: Frazz is a cyclist. I ordered the first book online to give Brent for Father’s Day a few years ago. It arrived one day when Brent was at work but both our boys were home. The three of us fought over it for two hours and, by Father’s Day, had all read it cover to cover. Fortunately it didn’t get too rumpled before we wrapped it. The second book is just as great. What is so appealing about Mallett? Gene Weingarten sums it up well: “…Jef Mallett fearlessly mines truths–sometimes uncomfortable truths–with humor and wit, and occasionally with a poignancy that can summon tears…” I predict that English nerds, triathletes, teachers, kids and anyone who cares about kids will love this book! (Added October 2011)

Feldhahn, Shaunti. For Women Only: What you Need to Know About the Inner Lives of Men. Multnomah, Sisters, Oregon, 2004. It all started when Shaunti Feldhahn asked her husband a few questions about his thinking. She hoped this Q&A would help her realistically portray a male character in a novel she was writing. Instead, his answers shocked her as she realized “there were many things I thought I understood about men–but really didn’t.” Intrigued, she started interviewing hundreds of men and even took a professionally-prepared survey of many more to identify “normal” vs. “exception.” In this book, Feldhahn shares her insights with women who would like to understand and support their guys better. A couple of her seven revelations include a man’s need for respect over love (to him, the two are inseparable anyway), and most men’s desire to be romantic, though they may hesitate for fear of failing. Whether you are committed to a man or just want to write about one, I highly recommend this book.
(Added September 2011)

Grisham, John. Bleachers. Dell, New York, 2003. I didn’t expect to be particularly interested in this book, since I am no football expert. But I’ve read enough John Grisham to give it a try. Sure enough, I found a well-told story about true-to-life characters. Fifteen years after graduating from high school, protagonist Neely Crenshaw and many of his fellow students have gathered in a sort of vigil for their dying coach. For decades Coach Rake had dominated not only the football program, but the whole town. Of course, in a town where football is KING, a winning coach might as well be king too. As the friends relive their teen years, we see how some of their decisions back then have shaped the rest of their lives. Even though the bulk of the events took place in the past, drama and tension abound as the reader pieces those events together from bits of dialogue. Grisham even makes a tape-recorded play-by-play spring to life. I would love for this book to be required reading for all students, athletes or not, because it offers a long-range perspective that may shock them: there is more to life than winning football games. (Added August 2011)

DeMuth, Mary E. Thin Places: A Memoir. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2010. Everyone knows that kids can be mean. All parents, teachers and caregivers make mistakes, too. So no one can claim to have enjoyed a perfect childhood, but Mary DeMuth suffered an extraordinary amount of trauma throughout her early years. In this memoir, because of the “Thin Places” perspective she has gained, she traces her life back through the most tragic episodes with hope rather than bitterness. She explains on page 11:

The Celts define a thin place as a place where heaven and the physical world collide, … where eternity and the mundane meet. Thin describes the membrane between the two worlds, like a piece of vellum, where we see a holy glimpse of the eternal — not in digital clarity, but clear enough to discern what lies beyond.

Looking back, DeMuth sees each incident in her life as a “thin place” where she realized her need for God; where she caught a sense of the Son of God beckoning her to trust him. With great courage she describes her own scars and weaknesses and relates how Christ’s healing power and love have been working all along to make her whole. (Added July 2011)

Noble, William. “SHUT UP!” He Explained: A Writer’s Guide to the Uses and Misuses of Dialogue. Paul S. Ericsson, Middlebury, Vermont, 1987 (more recent editions are also available). In Part A, Noble teaches how dialogue can develop character, establish setting and move your story forward. He backs up each principle by analyzing specific examples from published works, often showing how the same passage would “fall flat” if the writer overlooked the principle. Part B zooms in for more detailed examples, more subtle ways in which dialogue can add power to a narrative. Noble includes helpful advice specific to short stories, novels and non-fiction. He cannot of course cover every contingency. But I plan to keep this book handy for reference because, as Noble himself says (84), “…the bases are covered, and what is there will serve the writer well.” (Added July 2011)

Eggerichs, Emerson. Love & Respect. (Marriage & Family) Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2004. How can two loving, well-intentioned spouses fall into cycle after cycle of unmet needs, resentment and escalating anger? Dr. Eggerichs explains that men and women need different things from each other. And so, oddly, treating your spouse the way you want to be treated can actually be like “stepping on his/her air hose.” In this book, you’ll find everything you need to help replace those negative cycles with a much-more-rewarding cycle of mutual support — each giving the other what he/she needs most — and growing happiness. Written in a warm, accessible style, the book offers sound counsel and shows that the Author of the Bible really does have every person’s best interests at heart. (Added April 2011)

Myers, Bill. The God Hater. (Novel) Howard Books, a div. of Simon & Schuster, New York, 2010. Professor Nicholas Mackenzie insists that human logic reigns supreme. He never questions that logic — until he gets involved in his brother’s supercomputer experiment and begins to see human life from a different perspective. Plenty of action and suspense kept me turning the pages, with pathos and humor woven in even through the tension. I thought this was a great read. (Added Dec. 2010)

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick, or, The Whale. 1851. As much as I hate to admit it, I have given up on this book. It’s one of those classics that everyone is supposed to have read. The professor for my capstone English Literature course, a man I deeply admire and respect, told me it is his favorite book. Inspired, I bought a paperback copy (with introduction and annotation) at Half Price Books and dug in. This has been over a year ago now. I yawned through chapter after chapter of interminable background information and descriptions. Apart from some neat turns of phrase, only two sections caught my interest: the narrator Ishmael making friends with the character Queequeg, and a rather blunt bit of foreshadowing in Chapters 19 and 21. Then it was back to pointless (to me) rambling, interrupted by a 17-page chapter comprising a “systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera” (Chapter 32) which, in my impatience, I barely skimmed (and I was a biology minor!). A couple of days later I strongly considered sending my professor a terse message, something like: “Reading Moby-Dick. Finished 37 chapters. Can I expect something to happen soon?” I intended to pick up the book again, but always found something more interesting to do, like cleaning the kitchen sink. Finally, I had to confess that like Captain Ahab, I have been defeated by the great white whale. (added Oct. 2010)

Eldredge, John and Stasi. Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul. (Spiritual Growth) Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2005. For every woman who is tired of being led to believe she is inadequate in some way; for anyone who suspects that he or she has “missed the richness femininity was meant to bring to our lives, missed the way it speaks to us of the heart of God.” While some reviewers complain that this book presumes too much by saying “all” women have certain traits, the Eldredges actually balance “…there is an essence that God has given to every woman” with reminders that “…femininity cannot be prescribed in a formula.” I did find some passages, and even entire chapters, geared toward women whose struggles are far more serious than mine. During these parts I felt as if I was eavesdropping on someone else’s private counseling session. If you feel that way, hang in there (or just skim for a while). By Chapter 8, the rubber starts to meet the road again. In the last few chapters you meet a wide variety of feminine role models, most bearing no resemblance to June Cleaver (not that there’s anything wrong with her brand of femininity, either. I’m just sayin.) (added Sept. 2010)

Smith, Alexander McCall. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. (Fiction, Series) Anchor Books, a div. of Random House, New York, 2002. Take a deep breath, relax and enjoy a slower, more thoughtful pace of life in Botswana — but beware of the suspense lurking in the background, as well! Smith, himself born in Africa, portrays local life through the eyes of Precious Ramotswe, her friends and her foes. The gentle, dignified language of both characters and narrator offers a refreshing break from harsh American slang. I read the first book, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, last year and just got around to the second title, Tears of the Giraffe, this July. There are eight books that I know of, which I plan to read in order. (added Aug. 2010)

Plotnik, Arthur. The Elements of Expression. (Writing Craft) Authors Choice Press, San Jose, 1996. Plotnick teaches principles for vivid writing (and speaking) so that his readers need not “fall back on generic language in ways that mock our humanity.” Plotnik writes in a friendly, conversational style with plenty of amusing examples, both of of “how to” and “how not to” make communication engaging.
I read this book in 2009 and then re-read several chapters. (added Aug. 2010)

Thanks for reading!
Jan
PS: The header photo is of my favorite reading bench out in our back yard. Well… when it isn’t too hot or too cold to read there.

2 Responses to …And Writers Read

  1. Pingback: “Thin Places” (Book Review) | Joywriting: Everybody Has a Story

  2. Pingback: “Bleachers” (Book Review) | Joywriting: Everybody Has a Story

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