Saturday, June 30, 2012

from the book pile, 2012: Tony Woodlief, Mary DeMuth, Andrea Palpant Dilley

From the book pile posts collect my reading reflections as I work my way through the tower of books teetering off the edge of my nightstand. I post the last day of each month the books I've read.  In the meantime, the fun little widget on my sidebar includes a "real time" thought about each title I'm reading.

When I first started this blog in 2006 one of my goals was to nurture a forum that kept me accountable for the cultural goods I consume.  Of course, I didn't really know then to articulate the goal in those terms.  The truth dawns gradually.

Every new year, I consider making a number goal for books read in the coming twelve months. (do you do that too?) It's never a good idea; rather takes away the enjoyment of arriving at December 31 and tallying up titles from the previous year.  Feels like an accomplishment no matter the number.  Hope you enjoy!

p.s., as you'll see from today's list, I've been on a memoir kick the first part of this year.  

7Somewhere More Holy: Stories from a bewildered father, stumbling husband, reluctant handyman and prodigal son

Author:  Tony Woodlief

Genre: non-fiction, memoir

Published: Zondervan, 2010

General Impression:  Before I mention the deep feelings reading this memoir provoked, I'm going to do you a favor I wish someone had done for me before I cracked open the binding.  Really, Google would probably have done the favor for me had I only typed in the words "what's happened to Tony Woodlief's family since his memoir released in 2010"?  But I didn't.  Instead I relied on a relatively old Books & Culture podcast in which the hard-to-impress John Wilson gave a positive review, opened my amazon account and 1-clicked the title.  

Still, I'm not sorry I read it.  But just so my conscience is clear, go read the gut-wrenching post in which Tony himself tells the story of his impending divorce, When Arms Fail (Image Journal's Good Letters blog).  After you've read the bad news, come on back for the good.  

Ready?  Setting aside the dismal turn of events for the Woodlief family since the memoir's release in 2010, let me share with you some of what I loved about this title.

Woodlief's kinship with Frederick Buechner (book dedication):

"Brother Buechner, Father Buechner, your voice cries out in a world that wants no prophets. You have more children than you know, and we are grateful."

If you've read Buechner, you're probably aware that his own tragic story of his father's suicide when he was a small boy is woven in and throughout most of his work.  He has spent his life wrestling with the trauma and discovering graces along the way.  If, in fact, Woodlief follows Buechner as a spiritual and writing mentor, he has followed him well.

Framework for the memoir:  

I found the concept Woodlief used to frame his family's story perfectly suited for memoir. Perhaps this framework resonated deeply with me because John Wilson gave the storytelling device such an enthusiastic thumbs-up describing the storytelling device in his Books & Culture podcast.  Even more likely, Woodlief's metaphor of all the rooms of a house, a different room for each chapter, resonated deeply with me because my own family had recently walked through our new home with our priest, praying cleansing and blessing over each room.  

Either way, the concept worked beautifully.  And I am very sad that now the Woodlief family lives in two houses.  
"We used to understand that home is sacred ground, and a place of sanctification. We understood that it is where the sacred and the mundane meet, which is to say, where the hand of God touches the broken heart of man. We used to know these things, and so we labored and we bled to build our homes, and to protect them.
Perhaps, had Celeste and I not watched our child die in our home, and not started our family anew in the same bed where she died, and not wept and fought against the darkness to save it, then home might mean no more to us than it does to a realtor. But our home is where we have chosen to stake our ground in the world, to try to build something that we've never known but which we need to believe can exist. This is where we have striven with God, been wounded by God, cried out to God. This is where we seek him daily, sometimes hourly. If he is not here, and in your home, and in the homes of your neighbors, then were will he be found?"

An eloquent excerpt on personal tragedy:

You know a man has a lot to say when the introduction of his memoir includes the abuse and neglect both he and his wife suffered in their families of origin, their mutual coming to faith in Christ as newlyweds, the birth and then tragic death of their three-year-old daughter to cancer, the resulting collapse into grieving, depression, and infidelity.  
"I was certain there would be no miracle, and Celeste was equally certain one was coming. Often we cared for Caroline in shifts; it was during one of these evenings that I woke from a nap in the spare bedroom and felt the chill of fear settle into my stomach. this was always what waking was like during those months, but now there was a silence in the house that set me on edge.
I hurried to our bedroom.  Caroline lay peacefully, for once, on the bed. She was watching her mother with something like curiosity. Celeste was gently washing her. I watched, too, as Celeste swirled a soft cloth in warm soapy water, and then tenderly ran it along Caroline's skin. After she washed a part of Caroline's body, she would stop and pray for it. She prayed that it would not hurt, that it would be life-filled. She prayed over Caroline's toes, her knees, her arms, her tired, sweat-soaked head. The best her prayers could accomplish was a temporary peace, but even that was a miracle."
Just plain funny words (from the chapter on the bathroom):

"Neither Celeste nor I have gone to the bathroom uninterrupted since 1998. It's almost as if there is a signal light over the door, announcing to everyone in the house under four feet tall that a parent is now available to chat. Children know that in this place you have no choice but to listen. I understand now why people call it a "throne" -- I feel sometimes as if I am holding court.  There are questions about who owns a particular toy, say, or whether finishing half a peanut butter and banana sandwich puts one in the running for dessert, or when -- and I'm just asking, Daddy -- if it's okay to smack one's little brother.  None of them seems to have any use for my dictates and pronouncements when I'm standing, but the moment my haunches hit the ring seat I'm transformed into Solomon of the Latrine."


Author:  Mary DeMuth


Publisher: Zondervan, 2010

General Impression:  I read this book in one night.  When I turned the last page (page 218, to be exact) I said to Brian, "God's grace is amazing."  In a publishing world full of new memoir so often turning our attention every which way but God's grace, those four words might be the most important things I could say about the book.  

It seems to me that Mary DeMuth's skill in telling a pain-filled story with clear language marked by a beautiful balance of vulnerability, sorrow and humor served as a form of hospitality, inviting me to enter her story without fear. She tells us her story of childhood sexual abuse, loneliness and grief with both raw pain and authentic joy, welcoming me to feel both ends of the spectrum without fear of being consumed or fooled into a false hope that Jesus can -- and does -- heal His broken children.  

I am grateful for Mary's story and grateful to her for telling it with skill and grace. And grateful to a good Father who never stops saving broken children. 

Excerpt in which I see myself:
"I react again and again, not stopping to think about the ramifications or what issues lie beneath. The older I get, the longer between my over-the-top reactions, but even so, I know a volcano boils deep inside. It's like i develop a better ability to handle life's stress and pressure. I go longer and longer before erupting. But I still erupt. And once I do, I can't control myself.
It happens regularly:
I am listening to a man in ministry talk on and on about church, how the poor church needs parachurch ministry to help it along. He's been dissing the church for a year now, and these latest words ignite my volcano. "Stop it," I say. "You will not talk about the church that way." Everyone in the room rubbernecks their gazes to me, stunned. Mild-mannered Mary has had enough, and spews her anger.
I am sitting in a ministry meeting when a woman attacks my friend with verbal daggers. She's been doing it far too long. I shake my head and firmly say, "You will not talk to my friend that way."  More rubbernecking because I've raised my voice.
I am in France and our landlord tries to swindle more money from us. I shake my head and leave the room, muttering, "I need to leave or I'm going to start swearing."
I am on the phone, and the person on the other line makes fun of me and calls me selfish for the umpteenth time. I hang up and fling the phone across the room. I can't seem to keep that volcano down...
I discover I have been betrayed by a friend and I melt into gut-heaving sobs -- the kind that sound inconsolable.
I ache. I hurt. I worry. I fear. And I react. ... Could it be that my overreaction is a thin place where I can meet God?" -- chapter 17, "Reactionary"

Two other places I'd recommend for you to get to know Mary: She writes weekly at her blog Live Uncaged and serves as the non-fiction writing coach at The Bestseller Society.


Author:  Andrea Palpant Dilley


Publisher: Zondervan, 2012

General Impression: Andrea Palpant Dilley is a new friend here in Austin.  I've enjoyed every minute I've had to get to know her and her story.  I feel lucky to have the privilege to get to know her in "stereo" this way: face-to-face in weekly community and in reading her story in the pages of her memoir.  

When I first read the bio on her book jacket: "Andrea Palpant Dilley grew up in Kenya as the daughter of Quaker missionaries...." I mistakenly thought my experience as a pastor's daughter would orient me to the sorts of struggles that Andrea experienced as a missionary's kid.  Theoretically, that'd be true. I understand well the tension of living in a home where ministry to others becomes like a needy member of the family, living with a father irresistably drawn to pressing his family out of their comfort zones in order to meet the needs of the neediest. In reality, though,  I have no idea what it means to grow up in Kenya, watch my friends die of preventable diseases,  live each day surrounded by remnants and refugees of a historic genocide.  I have no freaking clue.

This was the path I walked (or should I say drove?), reading Andrea's story.  On one hand, I understood her struggle growing up surrounded -- occasionally browbeat -- by spiritual and religious fervor.  I related to the desire to make my own way, make sense of the illogical, find comfort in discovering rather than just swallowing old answers to questions of faith.  On the other hand, my path post-highschool could not be any more different than Andrea's.  She entered academia, I entered matrimony.  She wrestled her faith questions in coffee shops, bars and studio apartments in the Pacific Northwest.  I wrestled my faith questions in the bleary-eyed hours between nursing and changing diapers.  She not only read authors like Albert Camus, Walker Percy, and Dostoevsky but she had friends who read them, too.  I had one friend my age with kids when I was in my early-twenties.  We watched Oprah when were lucky.

I learned so many good things from reading Andrea's story, but at the top of the list I realized how often I've fallen prey to the grass-is-greener syndrome.  That if I'd had the chance to pursue academia, philosophy, and Depeche Mode I'd be further along in solving all my faith dilemmas right now.  In other words, Andrea lived out a life I'd unknowingly fantasized and she and I both ended up wanting to throw our Christian culture credentials down the garbage disposal.  

But if our faith struggles existed living polar opposite lives, our salvation story looks remarkably similar.  Both of us were saved not from our doubts, but through our doubts.  Both of us found that Jesus makes the most sense when we surround ourselves with real, grace-living people and when we pour ourselves out for real, broken lives outside of our own.

An excerpt that made me laugh (in a bitter sweet sort of way):

"For Halloween in third grade, I dressed up as Amy Carmichael. My mother found some white linen fabric and, using safety pins to hold it together, fasioned an Indian sari. I wore the sari to school with a pair of pink moon boots. Walking down the halls in a throng of witches and goblins, I ran into a student who looked at my rumpled white sari and said,'What are you, a mummy?'

'I'm not a mummy,' I said indignantly. 'I'm a missionary!'...My classmates didn't know what to do with me.  While they were pegging their stretchpants like MC Hammer and listening to New Kids on the Block, I was dressing up as a sex-slave-liberating missionary form the 1930s."

An excerpt that made me cry (in a bitter sweet sort of way):

"On one of our hospital rounds, we met a twelve-year-old boy named Losokwoi. He had come from the nomadic Pokot tribe in northern Kenya to be treated for severe tuberculosis of the brain and weighted about fory pounds from malnourishment. The nurses flipped him from side to side, trying to take care of his constant bedsores. He couldn't walk...But every week, [my brother] Ben played Legos with him, spreading the pieces out on the blanket in between Losokwoi's legs.

Losokwoi stayed in Lugulu for about two months. It was long enough for us to get to know him well. Somewhere toward the end of that time, the missionary pastor who had come with him to Lugulu baptized him in our bathroom tub. One afternoon, my dada brought Losokwoi fro the hospital and pushed his wheelchair through our living room and down the hallway to the bathroom. Then he and the pastor together lifted the boy's frail body out of the chair and lowered him into the tub. I stood out in the hallway with my mom and brothers,watching as the pastor bent him back into the tub water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen."

Andrea's book signing at Austin's Book People

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...