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A Walk in the Woods
by Bill Bryson
The Appalachian Trail, a little over 2,000 miles of challenging terrain, is a test that hikers of all ages, genders, and experience levels attack in various ways. There are parking lot visitors; they drive in, look around a bit and perhaps picnic, but do not actually hike the trail. Section hikers traverse parts of the trail at various times with a few completing the whole trail over the course of a lifetime. Then there are a few hardy souls who are full thru-hikers; they keep at it from south to north until they complete the trail.
As you might imagine, hiking the Appalachian Trail is an endeavor that requires a lot of planning and the purchase of expensive equipment to get the lightest weight gear possible. Carrying a forty pound backpack all day over rough terrain with formidable ascents and descents is a difficult task indeed. Author Bill Bryson who has written a number of travel books relates in A Walk in the Woods his experiences on the Appalachian Trail with Stephen Katz, a former school chum he had traveled around Europe with twenty-years prior. Much of the book describes the harsh realities of the hike and the delightful relief of their occasional forays into civilization to replenish supplies and sleep in a real bed. Some of the book relates their changing relationship as they confront the trials of the trail together as well as anecdotes about the interesting people they meet along the way.
Bryson’s writing style is comfortable. The descriptions are detailed without being overblown, and there is just enough history of the trail to give the reader an understanding of why it is the way it is. Often humorous, it provides an interesting read taking the reader into a once in a lifetime experience on the Appalachian Trail.
Notes: Some profanity
Publication: December 26, 2006 (first published May 5, 1998)—Anchor Books
But even men far tougher and more attuned to the wilderness than Thoreau were sobered by its strange and palpable menace. Daniel Boone, who not only wrestled bears but tried to date their sisters, described corners of the southern Appalachians as “so wild and horrid that it is impossible to behold them without terror.” When Daniel Boone is uneasy, you know it’s time to watch your step.
I was beginning to appreciate that the central feature of life on the Appalachian Trail is deprivation, that the whole point of the experience is to remove yourself so thoroughly from the conveniences of everyday life that the most ordinary things—processed cheese, a can of pop gorgeously beaded with condensation—fill you with wonder and gratitude.
And all the time, as we crept along on this absurdly narrow, dangerous perch, we were half-blinded by flying snow and jostled by gusts of wind, which roared through the dancing trees and shook us by our packs. This wasn’t a blizzard; it was a tempest.
by Joy Harjo
When the Poet Laureate of the United States writes a memoir, you can expect it to deviate from the standard timeline format, and Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave is anything but formulaic. She divides her book into four parts according to compass directions. As a Creek Indian, directions, nature, art, music, and family provide her orientation to life. Each section begins with poetic prose.
“East is the direction of beginnings.” She begins her tale this way and it is a little difficult to settle into the story as she shares her views from the eyes of a child filled with a mix of fear and adoration.
“North is the direction where the difficult teachers live.” In the second section, Harjo shares the realities of a brutal and abusive childhood in a time and culture that viewed spousal and child abuse and drunkenness as family problems to be either dealt with or endured within the family. After I read the book, I learned later through a webinar that this section was a very difficult one for Harjo to write. In fact, she got stuck for years on this part of her story with the book taking fourteen years to complete. There is redemption in her story, however, as education offers Harjo, as a teenager, a way out of her circumstances.
“West is the direction of endings.” In this section, Harjo describes her young adulthood as she becomes a teenage mother and finds herself trying to live in poverty, at odds with her mother-in-law, and responsible for a stepchild. What happened to her hopes and dreams for a creative life?
“South is the direction of release.” Probably the most poetic and visionary of the sections, “South” continues Harjo’s fight to survive but also interprets her dreams and visions as short stories and poems. She creates an interesting mix of fiction and nonfiction in her writing featuring monsters, eagles, demons, and ancestors.
Harjo describes her panic attacks as monsters. She labels the instincts that help guide her decision making as the “knowing.” She refers to her ancestors, those who have passed, as guardians in her life, and she speaks to them through her poetry. This memoir is a mix of what really occurred, her perceptions of those events, and flights of fantasy taken from her dream world; she melds poetry and prose in mind bending impressions.
Crazy Brave personalizes for me the individual and tribal struggles of Native Americans. Although the abuse tied to alcoholism is difficult to read about, it is an important part of Harjo’s experiences and of understanding the Native culture that helped shape her voice as an author and artist.
Notes: Harjo is currently writing another memoir to continue her story where Crazy Brave left off.
Publication: July 9, 2012—W.W. Norton & Co.
Because music is a language that lives in the spiritual realms, we can hear it, we can notate it and create it, but we cannot hold it in our hands. Music can help raise a people up or call them to gather for war.
Though I was blurred with fear, I could still hear and feel the knowing. The knowing was my rudder, a shimmer of intelligent light, unerring in the midst of this destructive, terrible, and beautiful life. It is a strand of the divine, a pathway for the ancestors and teachers who love us.
It was in the fires of creativity at the Institute of American Indian Arts that my spirit found a place to heal. I thrived with others who carried family and personal stories similar to my own. I belonged. Mine was no longer a solitary journey.
In the Land of Blue Burqas
by Kate McCord
What would it be like to live in a country where the language, religion, and culture are extremely different from your own, a country like Afghanistan? Kate McCord raised support from friends and embarked on what was destined to be a five year adventure as a project manager, arranging for and supervising programs to help the local people. In the process, she found ways to interact within the cultural norms which, if violated, could result in penalties including physical abuse, expulsion, or execution.
Although she could not openly evangelize, she spent much time there having tea with women, and sometimes men, sharing stories to illustrate the teachings of the Honorable Jesus who is regarded as a prophet in Islam. Those stories included parables Jesus himself shared with His followers. In recounting tales they could relate to and by the way she lived her life, Kate was able to show her Muslim neighbors and friends a God who loves them, unlike Allah, who is never associated with love. Allah’s followers obey him according to the interpretations of the local mullah in a most legalistic fashion.
Kate spent time learning the language and culture. Led by the Holy Spirit, she developed culturally sensitive ways to share difficult concepts like the Trinity. She lived as an Afghan woman, learning clothing requirements and social rules such as where to sit on a bus and when to make eye contact. Clearly a foreigner with her own religion, she adapted their customs to her own in a way that respected both traditions. Kate faced challenges in deciding whom to help in the most culturally appropriate way and looked to the locals to ascertain their attitudes toward individuals seeking aid. Knowing she could not revolutionize a society in which none of her many female friends said their husband had never beaten them, she nevertheless planted seeds of generosity, good attitudes, and kindness which helped the women in their relationships as well as showed them a side of the Honorable Jesus that they did not know thus drawing them to Him.
In the Land of Blue Burqas is the canvas on which Kate McCord paints a remarkably positive picture of Afghanistan and its citizens in spite of their dislike of most foreigners and regardless of the many brutal aspects of their culture. I came away with a clearer understanding of why the country vehemently resists change and is so hostile to non-Muslims. I also emerge from this enlightening book grateful that I live in a country where I am free to choose to worship a loving God.
Category: Evangelism, Christian Missions
Notes: I had a difficult time choosing the memorable lines I wanted to share. Sound bites and even longer quotes don’t do this story justice. I urge you to read the book to get a more complete understanding. It is a fascinating read. It also stimulates me to want to read about how Islam plays out in other countries.
Publication: May 1, 2012—Moody Publishing
Still, my greatest fear in the country has always been that I would be kidnapped and sold to some warlord as a fourth or fifth wife, relegated to household and sexual slavery behind a twelve-foot, mud-brick wall and locked gate. Even the mildest stories of Afghan women’s lives haunt me.
Our very presence challenges the power of the mullahs and the worldview of our neighbors. It’s one thing to hate and reject the voiceless, faceless masses of pig-eating, alcohol-drinking sons of Satan from the other side of the world—mythic caricatures interpreted by the mullahs through history and religion.
But we Christian foreigners are flesh and blood with eyes and voices, laughter and tears, stories and faith. When Afghans meet us, see our lives, hear our stories, and recognize our humanness, conflicting worldviews collide. The safe box of well-defined ideological fortress-orthodoxy trembles, walls collapse, and doors open.
What They Meant for Evil: How a Lost Girl of Sudan Found Healing, Peace, and Purpose in the Midst of Suffering
What They Meant for Evil: How a Lost Girl of Sudan Found Healing, Peace, and Purpose in the Midst of Suffering
by Rebecca Deng with Ginger Kolbaba
We hear reports on the news of massacres of innocents in various countries around the globe and stories of displaced men, women, and children who become refugees and try to survive in crowded refugee camps. Those stories are usually sound bites, quickly discarded for the next big story. Rebecca Deng, a survivor of the horrific Bor Massacre of 1991 in Sudan, gives us the perspective of a six year old girl in What They Meant for Evil. We see her confusion as she flees with family walking through the wilds. She becomes an orphan as those she loves most are killed and grows up in a refugee camp. The UN provides a small amount of maize, without seasoning, to sustain the population. The bathroom is an open area on the other side of a dry riverbed with nothing to provide privacy. I had always imagined a refugee camp as a temporary facility, but Rebecca lived in Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya for eight years before she benefited from a special program that relocated her to the U.S. and placed her with an adoptive family. Many of her Sudanese relatives remained in the camp long after that.
In the latter part of the book, we learn of Rebecca’s life as an adult and her spiritual growth as she comes to terms with her identity and the trauma of her past. She uses her education, her experiences, and her faith in God to help other refugees recover as she sees God’s plan unfold to bring good out of what others intended for evil.
I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Faith Words for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Category: Christian, Memoir, Nonfiction
Publication: September 8, 2020—Faith Words
That was what the war did to the tens of thousands of innocent children who lost everything—it took their childhood, their innocence, their families, their homes, even their lives.
More crowds meant less food for everybody. And less food meant more violence. Crime seemed to be everywhere. People began bullying other people, stealing their food, and beating and raping them. These things were unheard of for my people before coming here. My language doesn’t even have a word for rape.
…I had learned that God doesn’t always keep us from experiencing trauma, but his unseen presence is with us, strengthening us.
But there’s another aspect of forgiveness that we too often forget or neglect, and that is forgiving ourselves. If we want true forgiveness, we must forgive ourselves for the ways in which we have failed ourselves. We do more damage to ourselves when we believe the lies others have said about us and the lies the enemy whispers into our minds—the lies that tell us we are no good, we are worthless, we can never experience true freedom or true love.
Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir
by Jean Guerrero
Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir attracted my attention because I live part of each year in Mexico and part in New Mexico, U.S.A. After five years of cross-border experiences, I have such mixed feelings because I love the U.S. with its fairly balanced mixture of freedom and order, but I also have enjoyed the kindness and diverse cultures of the Mexican people.
Crux, however, addresses cross-border experiences on a whole different level. The author Jean Guerrero is the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and a Mexican father. Guerrero survives a dysfunctional childhood to become a journalist. This book is an effort to understand herself through an attempt to understand her father, a brilliant man who at various times is addicted to drugs, and alcohol, believes the C.I.A. is performing experiments on him, and is schizophrenic according to her mother, a medical doctor.
Guerrero longs for her father’s affection. She received it when she was very little, but most of her memories are of an unpredictable and often hateful man who occasionally dropped in and out of her life. Guerrero tries to win her mother’s affection and approval through scholastic achievement. In the process of becoming an adult, she is always introspective but she experiments in dangerous arenas—drugs at raves, trips to dangerous areas of Mexico, bad boys and sexual exploration, and the occult. The occult is tied in with her heritage as she had a great-great grandmother in Mexico who was a healer and diviner and other Mexican relatives who were involved in similar activities.
Crux contains a lot of family stories: Guerrero’s own memories, interviews with her father and his mother, and trips to Mexico to discover the truth of her roots. It also includes some of her philosophical thinking at various times in her life as well as information from her neurological studies in college. She minored in neurology as a part of her efforts to understand her father’s schizophrenia and her genetic predilection to become schizophrenic herself.
As a cross-border tale, Crux is sprinkled with Spanish, some of it translated, some not. I am not fluent in Spanish, but I appreciated the authenticity added to Crux by including Spanish. I do wonder, however, if understanding the book would be affected by a reader’s not being able to translate as they read. One could, of course, use an online Spanish dictionary to help, but that would definitely interrupt the flow.
Crux is a very personal memoir exploring the raw feelings of the author. The point of view changes in the latter part of the book as Guerrero addresses her father. There is also a maturity and cohesion in that part of the book not present in the first. Perhaps that is appropriate as she was initially relating experiences as remembered from a child’s point of view. Readers who enjoy history will receive historical background to provide context; it is interesting and succinct. All in all, Crux is a good read. There are very few heart-warming moments, but that was her life.
I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to One World (Random House) for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Notes: There are some sexually explicit portions and offensive language in Crux. The treatment of women is particularly disturbing.
Publication: July 17, 2018—One World (Random House)
Life was not turning out as we had hoped. Creativity was a crime. Innocent creatures were mortal. Fathers left their daughters and broke their mother’s heart.
I had grown accustomed to the idea of my father as dead. If he was dead, he wasn’t willfully ignoring us. This belief had become a sinister source of comfort.
He persisted without pausing for protest, the same anger he had directed at me when he was driving me to my riding lessons as a teenager. I stared at the table, steeling myself. The numbness came naturally—a habit of my adolescence.
Mad Cow: A PTSD Love Story
by Meredith Shafer
Despite its subtitle, Meredith Shafer’s Mad Cow: A PTSD Love Story is not a mushy romance. It is the hard-hitting tale of a woman who has lived in the trenches and struggled to scramble out for her own survival and that of her children and her husband nicknamed Mr. Wonderful in the book. “Mad Cow” does not refer to the feared Mad Cow disease; it is the nickname Meredith has given to the struggle her husband faces every day. He is a veteran retired on a medical disability and Mad Cow is a triangle of asthma, PTSD, and traumatic brain injury and all of the associated problems that often accompany these disorders including issues with depression and sobriety.
Mad Cow is not a timeline biography, and it does not detail Mr. Wonderful’s war injuries or his specific medical issues. Instead, this memoir shares the struggles of this hot mess, circus-like, crazy family of six, led by a spunky mama and a wounded warrior as they navigate life, crises, and the VA medical system. We learn of financial struggles and family issues. We discover how survival fueled by faith, trust, and God’s love becomes more important than a perfect house, after school activities, and productivity.
Meredith brings her background as a musician, lawyer, mom, writer and speaker, a devotee of leopard, shoes, coffee and bling, and most especially a lover of Jesus to this book. She shares openly from her heart; there is no fakeness in this book. You will find humor scattered liberally throughout. There is one particularly funny chapter called “The Casita” which describes how the family of six lived temporarily in a 150 square foot house. Under the humor though is the pain of trying to save a husband who is past being able to save himself. Under the humor is a woman’s heart as she leans into her Father relying on Him to restore her family.
Category: Memoir, Christian Nonfiction
Notes: You can find my review of Meredith Shafer’s first book, My Pink Champagne Life here
You can’t really go back, though. You can only move forward, which we are trying to do with generosity of spirit and good humor and grace, a whole truckload of grace. Wow, that’s hard.
I’ve decided that potty training a fiery redheaded she-child is kind of like training a wild tiger to dance to show tunes. It’s a delicate yet frightening process that requires infinite patience, a death wish, and multiple costume changes.
I guess thirty days off and three counseling appointments post deployment aren’t nearly enough. The military way, though it’s not written in any of their field manuals, is to soldier on. Self-medicate with alcohol if necessary as that is the acceptable method of of soldiering on.
I Can Only Imagine
by Bart Millard
What will it be like for a believer in Christ to die and go to heaven? Bart Millard’s answer is “I Can Only Imagine.” If you have not heard this beautiful worship song, I encourage you to go to YouTube and listen right now. Then read the memoir I Can Only Imagine written by Bart Millard, lead singer and organizer of MercyMe and writer of this song. God inspired him to write the song, and he had it down on paper in ten minutes, but as legendary Christian singer Amy Grant told him, referring to his background, “Bart, you didn’t write this song in ten minutes. It took a lifetime.”
Millard’s memoir details what a movie by the same name could only highlight. A product of a severely dysfunctional family, he suffered extreme physical, verbal, and emotional abuse followed by a long period of neglect which could still be punctuated by paternal outbursts of anger. But through it all, God had a plan. This book details Bart’s relationship with God and the dual miracles He worked in the life of Bart and his dad. How could Bart’s father morph from a monster into a role model? How could Bart forgive his father for the horrible abuses wrought on him and go on to become a kind and loving father and husband himself? The answer to these mysteries is summed up in one word—God. More exactly, the miraculous power, love, and mercy of God.
The book also shares how the band MercyMe was formed and worked its way up the ladder in the dog-eat-dog competitive music industry while remaining true to God’s calling for them. Theirs was not a path of instant success, but it was one that glorified God and reflected His plan and goals.
This memoir is well written and honestly reflects the struggles Bart had in his personal as well as musical endeavors. The part of the book that deals with abuse is, of course, difficult to read, but Millard shares enough that the reader understands the depth of what happened without being drawn into lengthy descriptions of the brutality. Millard shares his pain but also inspires with the wondrous miracle of God’s love.
I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Thomas Nelson (W Publishing) for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Publication: February 13, 2018—Thomas Nelson (W Publishing)
But through all that noise in my life, whenever I heard perfect union of melody and lyric in a song, something traveled from my ears to my heart and made me feel alive.
I embraced the truth that no matter what happened or what Dad did to me, God was ultimately in control. I became more vocal about my faith, less afraid to ask questions about the Bible, and more confident to state what I believed. What I discovered is that there’s personal empowerment that comes with a relationship with Christ, and this, coupled with a newfound identity in Him, brings real healing to suffering people.
The maddening thing about verbal abuse is how the words you’ve heard replay in your head hundreds of times, even when the person is not around or has stopped saying those things to you.
We all face really hard seasons when it seems as if the entire world is against us, when we think we just cannot win. But when we keep standing strong, following the Lord, and obeying His calling, He will see us through and keep us on His path.
by Tara Westover
Very few books leave me speechless, but Tara Westover’s memoir Educated is one of them. Well written, this is the author’s very personal story of growing up in a dysfunctional family with abuse of various types from several family members and later betrayal by others. Tara lived a secluded and physically difficult life with a large family dominated by an authoritative father with mental issues. He was an extremist Mormon with an antigovernment, end times, survivalist fixation.
Tara was supposedly homeschooled, but her education was basically nonexistent. She and several of her brothers in turn realized their only escape was through education. Self-taught, Tara scored high enough on her ACT test to qualify for admission to Brigham Young University as she turned 17. She was unprepared mentally and socially for a college experience. She did not even have basic hygiene skills.
Over the course of her academic education, she was confronted with multiple instances where the foundations of her beliefs from childhood were shattered by learning the true version of events. She was lied to, put in danger, and manipulated time after time. Tara’s journey to mental health and a new normalcy happened slowly and only after many confrontations with her family. Eventually she was forced by them to choose with whom her loyalties would lie and the direction of her life as an adult.
Educated is a powerful memoir and emotionally very difficult to read. Its focus on education, relationships, and faith results in a painful tale as Tara journeys from Idaho to Cambridge with forays to New England, Paris, Italy, and the Middle East—all places she could not even dream of because she previously knew nothing about them. This is a story that needed to be told, and one I am glad the author shared.
I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Random House for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Notes: links provided by Random House
LISTEN to Tara’s NPR Fresh Air interview: https://www.npr.org/2018/02/20/587244230/memoirist-retraces-her-journey-from-survivalist-childhood-to-cambridge-ph-d
WATCH Tara’s CBS This Morning segment: https://www.cbsnews.com/video/tara-westovers-journey-from-off-the-grid-childhood-to-cambridge/
DISCUSS the book with your book club: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/550168/educated-by-tara-westover/9780399590504/readers-guide/
Publication: February 20, 2018—Random House
I’d never learned how to talk to people who weren’t like us—people who went to school and visited the doctor. Who weren’t preparing, every day, for the End of the World.
“There’s a world out there, Tara,” he said. “And it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear.”
It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you, I had written in my journal. But Shawn had more power over me than I could possibly have imagined. He had defined me to myself, and there’s no greater power than that.
In that moment part of me believed, as I had always believed, that it would be me who broke the spell, who caused it to break. When the stillness shattered and his fury rushed at me, I would know that something I had done was the catalyst, the cause. There is hope in such a superstition, there is the illusion of control.
Where I End
by Katherine Elizabeth Clark
In Where I End, Katherine Elizabeth Clark shares a chance accident, a moment in time, that altered her life and the lives of her family members forever. She describes and analyzes the event and her journey to healing from the viewpoint of a Christian. Although she did not have a “leap to her feet dancing” experience, she did eventually regain the ability to walk, which her surgeon regarded as a miracle: “I can take no credit. God did this.”
Although Kate is left with residual, fairly dramatic difficulties and constant pain, her progress has been remarkable. As she shares her story, she relates how God worked in her life through family, friends and strangers who ministered to her. She tells of the humiliation and frustration of being unable to do even the simplest things for herself. Before the accident Kate was employed as a writer by a Christian organization so her prose is excellent and well thought out and her ideas are clearly expressed. She backs up her theological positions with Scripture references and quotes from Biblical scholars. She shares her story not to put a focus on herself, but on Jesus, who was and is with her through the trials and pain of the accident, surgery, rehabilitation and daily renewal of her hope and trust.
I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Moody Publishing for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Category: Memoir, Christian
Publication: January 2, 2018—Moody Publishing
In that moment, my steady world, where bodies work in harmony with brains, was bartered for an unrecognizable universe, something resembling a Salvador Dalí painting; I felt as if I had slipped into a surreal, disorientated dream.
Yet though our Father promises to hear the cries of His children, He has not promised to exhaustively reveal His mind or plans. We must trust Him, and sometimes in the dark.
When Scripture speaks of not being afraid, it is always cloaked in the presence of the Lord. Be not afraid, not because the situation isn’t terrifying, but because you’re not alone. You have a Good Shepherd who hides you beneath His wing.
It is a great mercy of God that we cannot see the future.