Tag Archives: Blue Like Jazz

Top 12 Books: A list that connects to lifelong memories

I love lists.

I can keep myself preoccupied for hours thinking about my favorite baseball players, my favorite foods, my favorite movie lines or just about favorite anything.

I also love to-do lists. I have them everywhere. I’m often making lists.

I thought about this recently when I stumbled across one such list I wrote down several years ago. It’s my favorite book list.

I hesitate to make this public because my list reveals an utter lack of fraudulent literacy. I don’t often go for “the classics.” I read Moby Dick and often challenge anyone else who says they did because it was one of the worst, longest, dreariest books I had ever read. Few of the great books, modern or classic, make my list for the simple reason I am often bored reading them, which says far more about me than it does about the great authors of the past.

For an editor and writer, my list makes plain that I lack sophistication in my choices. But, I’ll get out myself.  My list honestly makes no sense. It represents books that for whatever reason, touched me.

Here it is, for all its simplicity:

Just missed: The Last Night at Twisted River by John Irving (every book he writes is brilliant) and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Every book by Robert Parker in his Spenser series. And Blue Like Jazz, a forerunner to my unpublished spiritual memoir I didn’t know existed when I wrote it.

12. Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore. One of the funniest books I ever read. And yet it had sneaky relevance tucked into the chicanery, a bit of “what if” quality about the son of God that helped me grow spiritually, believe it or not.John Steinbeck. This one makes me look a little better

11. East of Eden, By John Steinbeck. This one makes me look a little better. It lives up to the hype. Radical for its time, sparse in its prose and deeply insightful. Timshel: One of the best passages I’ve ever read, powerful wisdom in literary form.

10. Lonesome Dove, By Larry McMurtry. I only picked this up because I had nothing else to read. I couldn’t believe a “western” had been so critically acclaimed. Then I read it. All 900-something pages in one weekend. It was brilliant.

9. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. Compelling storytelling that made an entire culture approachable, lovely and dreadful. The ending fell off just a bit. I don’t know, but I suspect it was somewhat autobiographical about his move to the Bay Area and close to his heart, which is often the kiss of death for a novelist. But the rest of the book is so good, it weathered the lack of focus.

8. The Top of the Hill, by Irvin Shaw. I read this when I was probably seven years old. Maybe 10. I re-read it many times in the years to come. I didn’t know it at the time, but this early foray into “adult popular fiction” connected with an unconscious part of me that deeply identified with the flawed protagonist. It still amazes me how this book captured my childhood attention and held it for so long.

7. To Kill A Mockingbird, By Harper Lee. The highest standard of writing in the voice of a child and yet capturing vital issues every adult should know. Atticus Finch is a great literary character.

6. The Bridge of Madison County, by Robert James Waller. I am a hopeless romantic. But I don’t read romance stories. This had a rare combination of compelling romance with a fascinating story. Yes, it’s sappy and emotive and overly sentimental. But the writing is crisp, and the book was rejected by every agent who looked at it. It remains the forerunner to the possibility of self-publishing.

5. Middlesex,  by Jeffrey Eugenides. One of the best-written books I have ever read, a rare combination of great writing, fascinating characters and compelling story. Usually, one of the three is missing (often the last). This had them all.

4. The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway. I think Hemingway’s legend does not match his actual work. For example, most people talk about his “sparse prose” and “active voice.” Yet he is a master of the run-on sentence, which is what makes that prose so compelling. Without that, sparse prose becomes– like so many who try to emulate him — too simplistic, almost a “see Dick run,” cadence that is a snore. This book is a masterpiece in both. When the shark first hits his fish, I’ve never felt such physical dread reading a story.

3. The River Why, by David James Duncan. This is another book that couldn’t get past agents, probably because it was too wordy and wandering, nothing like the boilerplate that publishers demand from first-time authors. But the Sierra Club published it, and a gem resulted. Funny, lovely, important and mystical, it remains one of the best stories I’ve ever read.

2. I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by Margaret Craven. I almost can’t describe this incredible book my mother first read to my brother and me when we took a summer vacation driving through the national parks. Craven was in her 60s when the short little story of a priest in a remote village became an unlikely best seller. It’s beautiful, but also, a spiritual signpost I return to often.

And my favorite book from this list:

1. The Shadow of the Wind, By Carlos Zafon. When I found this book it came in a dark time of rehab when nothing was very beautiful in my life. The beauty of his prose and the story filled me with a lightness no book had ever done before or since. It’s translated from Spanish and still beautiful, so I can only image how incredible it is in the author’s native language.

Share your favorites in the comment section below. Like all my lists, they can be revised often. In this case, I hope they do, because discovering a new Top 12 book is a gift I look forward to every time I enter a bookstore.


The uncultured reality of culture wars

Rainbows drape the red, white and blue decor of America. But the skies up ahead are stormy and dark.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling to legalize same-sex marriage across the country last week swept away a terrible injustice against gay and lesbian citizens. The laws that banned gay marriage were driven almost entirely by religious values. The country ignored foundational principles of separation of church and state. The Supreme Court’s ruling set this wrong to right and removed another stain of American discrimination.

And yet the fight rages on. The bubbles in the celebratory champagne have not yet calmed and the fight for “religious liberty” was announced.

Nothing is ever finished in this country. They just keep fighting, battles old and new.

Marriage is now just marriage, thank God.  But fearful,  reactionary battles about the rights of churches splattered across social media at a shrill level. The lines of division and hate only deepened.

In a news story about the implication of the court’s ruling, David Gushee, a heterosexual Baptist and professor of Christian ethics from the Deep South tried to describe the disconnect.

“It’s hard to overstate the level of anguish and fear on the part of many conservative Christians about what this decision and the overall direction of the culture on this issue might mean for them. They’re very worried.”

So they fight back. The shrill rhetoric has just turned up the volume and turned down the reason to such a extent young people wrote about their confusion and even fear. Our daughter told us tearfully one night she couldn’t imagine our gay friends ever “being hurt” in reaction to wanting to marry, but on social media she read such threats.

Just prior to the High Court’s decision, a June 2015 Pew Research Center study found that white evangelical Protestants, “stand out for their deep opposition” to same-sex marriage. Seventy percent disapprove, more than half strongly disapprove.

Christians are defensive about claims of bigotry and hate when they are trying to defend their core values. I have deep sympathy for this. Each faith has its right to live out their faith. The problem is religions desire to force those outside their faith to follow their rules as well.

The reactionary “religious liberty” speeches from the likes of Ted Cruz will never do anything but rile up hate among “the faithful” and shove the likes of me away.

It seems the defense of “truth” has led to the destruction of people in far too many instances. Bigotry and hate charges stick because too often they are true.

Gushee said he “was troubled that young gays and lesbians especially were not allowed within traditional Christian thinking to integrate their sexuality and spirituality, leading to ‘a lot of inhumane and sometimes quite terribly destructive outcomes for individuals and families,'”

“So religion, my religion, the religion that I cherish and that I practice and teach, was producing consistently toxic outcomes in people’s lives.”

I am a liberal Christian who doesn’t call himself a Christian because of how the brand of Christianity has become mostly know for conservative Christian politics. I have more in common with a Zebra than I do conservative Christian politics. I also happen to think Jesus has more in common with a Zebra than conservative Christian politics, but that’s not an argument I care to convince conservatives about. I am content to let them believe what they want. I am content to resist their beliefs becoming law for all. I celebrate the victory of marriage for all even as it defeats the so-called Christian opposition.

I will be equally committed to the protection of religious rights should this fearful latest battle within the never-ending culture war come to pass. Perhaps we can worry less about drawing battle lines and picking sides in a culture war that nobody can win and worry more about listening and respecting people of all kinds.

In his book Blue Like Jazz, Don Miler wrote of his own emergence from conservative Christianity decades ago, “I was tired of Christian leaders using Biblical principles to protect their power, to draw a line in the sand separating the good army from the bad one.”

That is still the vibe, for better or worse, today. It’s why those outside the church feel so unloved by those who feel compelled to defend the church from them. But we forget, how soon we forget, that we are not to defend much of anything. Christians are called to love. The only two commandments? Love God and love others. How will people know a person is a follower of Christ? Christ himself said it would be by the merit of our love for one another.

Or as Miller wrote more than a decade ago–the decades change but this culture war never ends– religious defense and fear and war have robbed the church of the expression of love.

“With all (the church’s) talk about pure love, in the end it shook down to conditional love,” Miller said.

As the rainbows of love color our sky, can we just for a moment pause and consider the act of love? Of listening? Of acceptance?

The culture wars and the fearful storms of defending religious liberty can wait, at the very least until it actually happens. On that day, hopefully many of us thrilled with the rainbows in today’s skies will be standing with the church’s right to freedom of religion in the storm. I know I will.